Mather Brown

Self-Portrait, 1812

Christened 11 October 1761 in Boston, Massachusetts
25 May 1831 in London, England

  • Mather Brown is raised in Boston by his two maternal aunts, Catherine and Mary Byles, both staunch supporters of King George III.
  • He intends to have a career painting miniatures until he travels to London (1781) and finds success painting historical paintings and portraits.
  • After painting two religious works for the Church of St. Mary’s-in-the-Strand (1784), Brown forms a partnership with the painter Daniel Orme to commercialize these and other images through the public sale of engravings.
  • When Thomas Jefferson visits England (1786) as Ambassador of France, by request, Brown paints two identical copies of Jefferson. One is commissioned by John Adams, the other is for Jefferson himself.
  • Brown’s portrait of Jefferson (1788) is the first known image we have of him.
  • After Adams commissions a portrait of Jefferson, the gesture is reciprocated: Jefferson commissions a painting of Adams. Although Brown had already completed a portrait of Adams the previous year (1785), Jefferson does not want a replica. After some coaxing, Adams agrees to sit for Brown again.
  • Although Brown’s fame and prominence come from painting the royal family, his work falls out of favor even before his death. It is not until the 20th century that his work is rediscovered and and appreciated once again.

Mather Brown, an American-born painter active in England, was born in Boston in 1761. A descendent of four generations of religious leaders (including Increase Mather) on his mother’s side, his father, Gawen Brown, was a clockmaker. His mother, Elizabeth Byles Brown, sat for John Singleton Copley in the same year she died, 1763, when Brown was not yet two. He was raised by two maternal aunts, both staunch Loyalists.

According to Brown himself, Gilbert Stuart learnt me to draw at age 12. At age 16, he walked upstate New York selling wine and painting miniature portraits, from which he earned enough money to further his artistic studies. In 1781, age 19, he left for London. It was at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin that he became a student of Benjamin West, in the studio that nurtured other young American painters, including John Trumbull, who became his friend.

In 1782 Brown became the first American to enroll in the school of the Royal Academy of Art. He exhibited four paintings the following year and opened his own studio, a year later, in 1784. Notable among his early successes were individual portraits of John Adams, his wife Abigail, and their daughter, Nabby, who all sat for him in 1785. Brown completed a second portrait of John Adams and the first known image of Thomas Jefferson in 1788.

Simultaneously Brown worked on large-scale works from English history, and though he had a number of successes, he eventually concentrated on portraiture. By the end of the decade he was so highly regarded that he became the official portraitist to King George III’s second and third sons. He painted a portrait of the king-in-waiting — the Prince of Wales — and, in 1790, he painted the King.

Brown’s swift ascent was matched by his rapid decline.

Never elected to the Royal Academy, his patronage abated. Within ten years he was struggling to find commissions. In 1808 he left London and eventually settled in Manchester, where he took on pupils.

By 1812, when Brown painted his self-portrait for his aunts in Boston, he was chronically in debt, and they periodically sent him money. He wrote to them about his situation:

I could fill a long letter with the various lamentable difficulties experienced by individuals here in consequence of the stagnation of business; Warehouses laden with Goods for which there is no market — I have many Pictures to dispose of and have placed them for months in various Shops, but cannot dispose of them. (27-Mar-1812)

He returned to London in 1824. Though Brown periodically exhibited, by the time of his death, in 1831, he lived in a boarding house — an impoverished recluse, long forgotten.

Yet there is no doubt that his natural abilities were what most distinguished [John] Marshal from other lawyers and jurists. His head, said Senator Rufus King, is the best organized of anyone I have known. Marshal could grasp a subject in its whole and yet simultaneously analyze it parts and relate them to the whole. He could move progressively and efficiently from premise to conclusion in a logical and rigorous manner and extract the essence of the law from the mass of particulars. In the words of Justice Story, he had the remarkable ability to seize, as it were by intuition, the very spirit of juridical doctrines. Even Jefferson acknowledged Marshall’s talent, but he scarcely respected it. Jefferson told Story that when conversing with Marshall, I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good, no matter how remote from the conclusion he seeks to establish, you are gone. So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer, or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me whether it were daylight or not, I’d reply, Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)