How do we convey friendship? A complex question deserves a complex answer, and this painting by Elaine de Kooning of close friend and fellow artist William Theophilus Brown rises to the occasion.
This portrait is part of de Kooning’s “faceless men” series created between 1947-1956 in which she paints male friends and family with blurred visages. A cacophony of color and lines coalesce into a towering image. The work challenges us to think about the qualities that make up a portrait. Is it more than just a likeness? Gesture and shape inform more about the sitter than the face. The psychology and personality of the sitter take precedence over physical likeness. Deft and quick brushstrokes characterize Elaine de Kooning’s process. Known as “the fastest brush in the East”, she would develop a dynamic language of figuration within abstraction.
“A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun,” she famously declared, “an event first and only secondarily an image.” And so, this work is an event – the interpretation by the artist of her sitter and of her friend. In painting portraits, in general and of men, de Kooning consciously rejected normal conventions, giving her own vision of masculinity and upending who and how male portraits are created and consumed.
De Kooning and her husband were an important influence on Theophilus Brown during his time in New York following WWII and were part of his wider circle of friends which included Paul Hindemith, André Previn, Christopher Isherwood, Samuel Barber, and more. He commented that “particularly Elaine de Kooning took me under her wing.” Like de Kooning, Theophilus Brown had an impact on art history, part of the Bay Area Figurative movement that focused on figuration and representation against the overwhelming trend of abstraction and Abstract Expressionism. Also like de Kooning, Theophilus Brown would become famed for his paintings and portraits of men, complicating the art historical notions of portraiture. Visit our earlier exhibition “The Estate of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown” to learn more and see examples of available works by Theophilus Brown.
De Kooning’s reputation as a portraitist would lead to the commission to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Like these earlier portraits, de Kooning would create a close bond and rapport with Kennedy, reflected in the paintings.
In its swirl of brushstrokes, “Bill Brown” is a stunning example of Elaine de Kooning’s ability to capture the personality of her sitter through her own lens and unmistakable hand.
Elaine de Kooning in her studio at work on a series of portraits of President John F. Kennedy, c. 1964.
Theophilus Brown in his Berkeley studio, c. 1955-56.
Seated Man (1971), by Theophilus (Bill) Brown, an influential artist of the Bay Area Figurative Movement and a prolific portraitist.
Elaine and Willem de Kooning, 1953.