Portrait of a Watermelon, 1964 signed, titled and dated 'Joan Brown 1964' (on the stretcher) oil on canvas 20 x 22in. (50.8 x 55.8cm)
PROVENANCE San Francisco Art Institute Gallery, San Francisco Stephen De Staebler, San Francisco (acquired from the above) By descent from the above to the present owner
At a very early age, and with no prior experience in art, the painter Joan Brown was quickly recognized for her innate artistic skills, and under the tutelage of acclaimed artist, Elmer Bischoff, her abilities and style evolved and quickly gained national recognition. In her painting, Portrait of a Watermelon, Brown displays her ability to elevate an inanimate object with her vivacious use of lush impastos in bright, vibrant colors. In this work, the thick application of the paint inherits a sculptural quality, layered dramatically upon the canvas and extending beyond the picture plane. The renowned Bay Area sculptor, Stephen De Staebler, purchased this work from the San Francisco Art Institute Gallery, and was undoubtedly attracted to the sculptural elements and thick texture of this extraordinary still life. De Staebler, best known for his works in bronze and clay, taught at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1961 to 1967 where Brown had completed her Master's degree one year prior to his hiring.
At age 17, Brown enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute (then the California School of Fine Arts). The free-spirited and fiery Brown thrived in the presence of progressive, open-minded peers and mentors at CSFA, and it was there that she met Bischoff, a Bay Area painter and professor at CSFA, and where she truly came to understand the joy that she garnered from the artistic process. The next seven years of Brown's life were marked by great success and recognition: she received numerous opportunities to display her works at exhibitions, both locally and nationally, and in 1960, at age 22, she had her first solo exhibition in New York at the Staempfli Gallery. Brown's work was continually evolving during this period as she drifted between different artistic genres and circles, such as abstraction, funk art and figurative art. She absorbed the theories and practices of the movements, and implemented the numerous styles and influences of the individuals she came into contact with, such as David Park, Manuel Neri, Peter Voulkos, and Frank Lobdell, all the while imbuing her works with a distinctive style and personal narrative undertones.
In 1964, the year that Joan Brown created Portrait of a Watermelon, Brown's artistic life and career dramatically changed in trajectory. This work can be used as a lens for viewing a moment in which the artist recalled the early lessons she had learned from her mentor Bischoff 'to see the value of painting the ordinary things that surrounded her: a slice of watermelon on the table, Noel exploring in the kitchen...' (K. Tsujimoto, The Art of Joan Brown, Berkeley, 1998, p. 63). For Brown, painting still-life portraits was a way for her to regain her footing in a time where she deeply feared losing her spontaneity and creativity, and when much opinion and outside influence was infringing on her artistic sense of self. During this year, the artist retreated to her studio, disregarding gallery pressures. After completing a series of still life portraits, all in her thick, impasto style and all depicting simple, quiet and reflective moments, she completely abandoned this technique in order to develop further as an artist free from the conventional pressures of galleries, critics and enthusiasts alike.