A Look at the Portrait of Gustavus Adolphus by African American Artist Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012) Posted on February 7th, 2022 by

Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012), Gustavus Adolphus, 2001, oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches, Gift of Gerald “Bud” Pearson

Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012), artist of the 2001 oil portrait Gustavus Adolphus that was donated to the Hillstrom Museum of Art by Gerald “Bud” Pearson and that is displayed near the entrance of the Jackson Campus Center of Gustavus Adolphus College, was born in Greensboro, Georgia, but grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

The artist often drew on his identity as an African American. He noted, “I think my heritage has a great significance to the images I produce, but you can limit people with a name or a title to only serve one group. When you see my work, you can tell it is done by someone who is Black. But, I want to provide as many beautiful things to the world as I possibly can.” (quoted in “Art Sings the Blues,” The Washington Afro-American, October 26, 1991).

Brown is best known for his portraits of blues and jazz musicians, such as his 1989 depiction of Junior Wells in the Smithsonian American Art Museum or his 1992 painting of Ornette Coleman in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Music was an important part of the artist’s life from an early age, when his father was friends with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and others. Brown considered music and art to be basically the same thing, and music often provide stimulus for his painting.

He studied art, and psychology, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and after teaching in the area he traveled to Europe, then in 1970 moved to New York with the goal of being a professional painter. He helped support himself with part-time teaching, including at the Brooklyn Museum, York College in Queens, and the School of the Visual Arts in Manhattan.

In the earliest part of his career, Brown produced large, abstract works that were influenced by Abstract Expressionism. He referred to painter Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) as his “artistic godfather,” and the older artist, whom he met in 1975, encouraged him in his work. Brown began adding figurative elements to his work in the late 70s, although the bold expressiveness of his early years remained an element when he started doing portraits.

In 1988, the artist began his “Blues” series, a group that would eventually include over 350 works. The artist also painted portraits of non-musicians, including a 2001-2002 depiction of his long-time friend, artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988), another important artistic influence. The portrait of Bearden was included in an exhibition of Brown’s work titled Frederick J. Brown, Portraits in Jazz, Blues, and Other Icons, which opened in 2002 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, then traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art and to the The Studio Museum in Harlem. The portrait was lent to that exhibit by Gerald “Bud” Pearson, a friend and supporter of Brown and a collector of his works.

Pearson was an avid art collector who in 1971 founded the Pearson Art Foundation, to which he devoted much of his time. The Foundation had as its goal the promotion of appreciation of art in the public, based on Pearson’s belief that the arts are a great equalizer in society, just as are sports. The Foundation and Pearson were instrumental in the running and support of the Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboji, Iowa, which now has Pearson’s extensive collection of Russian Impressionist art. Pearson was connected to Gustavus and served on the advisory committee of the Hillstrom Museum of Art for several years before his death in 2008.

Pearson commissioned from Brown the portrait of Gustavus Adolphus and donated it to the Museum in 2001, which exhibited it and the put it on permanent display in the Campus Center. Around the same time, Pearson also commissioned from the artist a portrait of Martin Luther that he donated to Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas (the portrait is currently on display at the college’s library).

Brown’s depiction of Gustavus Adolphus is informed by a great deal of research into the physical appearance of the great Swedish king, who reigned from 1611-1632. The portrait is one of several depictions of the king on campus, and provides an updated, modern, yet historically accurate portrayal.

Over 300 contemporary images of Gustavus Adolphus are known, in addition to recorded verbal descriptions. In 1616, a member of the Dutch embassy in Stockholm described the king as having a long face with a fair complexion, and blond hair and beard. Brown’s depiction shows the young king—who was only 37 when he died on the battlefield—as a vital, blond-haired, blue-eyed Swede. The eyes are perhaps the most remarkable element of the portrait, vivid in color and staring intensely from beneath the king’s set brow.

The artist often presented his portrait subjects in a heroic manner, as in this portrayal. Gustavus is robed in a gold and purple striped garment that indicates his royalty and that ties the image both to Brown’s bold style and to his interest in art of the Renaissance and other historical eras. A major project Brown undertook was in 1994 when he was commissioned for a site-specific project for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City (which later hosted his exhibition of portraits of musicians and others). For this effort, Brown created an extensive series of paintings—110 of them—depicting his interpretation of the progression of art across history.

Although Brown died nearly ten years ago, his reputation remains strong. His estate is now being handled by the Berry Campbell Gallery in New York, which in 2021 began a series of exhibits highlighting different aspects of the artist’s career. The first of these, titled Frederick J. Brown, The Sound of Color, dealt with the artist’s abstractions. Curator for that exhibit was renowned art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who worked for numerous art museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and who served as executive director president of The Studio Museum in Harlem.


Comments are closed.