"Hilda Wilkinson Brown: A Washington Artist Rediscovered" at Howard University's Gallery of Art is a show that makes one wonder: Why was Hilda Brown forgotten?
Like the finest works she left us, Hilda Brown herself was sophisticated, genteel, charming, modest, tough. In the '20s and the '30s, she was one of the few painters capable of linking this city's black community to the world of modern art.
Her best paintings are delightful. Her subjects are familiar. She painted what she saw here--the lights of Griffith Stadium, brick Victorian row houses, the streets of Le Droit Park. Her oils please at once, and after pleasing unfold slowly. They have quiet truths to give us. Hers are images that teach.
When it suited her intentions she would borrow from the moderns. She fully understood the space-declaring brushstrokes of Ce'zanne, Lyonel Feininger's light rays, and the sweet, domestic scale of the paintings at the Phillips. But her style is her own.
Because she did not seek publicity, and would not date her pictures, her long career in art is known only in outline. She was born in 1894, she died in 1981. Her family, the Wilkinsons, were living in this city, freed from slavery, more than 40 years before the Civil War. Washington painter Lilian Burwell, Brown's niece, who served as the guest curator for the Howard exhibition, recalls her aunt's politeness and the turn-of-the-century Victorian gentility that partly concealed the steel in her soul.
Brown was highly trained. One sees that in her work. "After the old M Street High School (later Dunbar)," Burwell writes, "she graduated from Miner Normal School which much later became the University of the District of Columbia. She graduated from the Cooper Union Art School. She held a degree from the National Academy of Design. Her bachelor's in education was earned at Howard University. She attended the Art Students' League, and won her master's at Columbia University."
By 1920, Brown had mastered half a dozen different styles of commercial illustration. One sees that in the drawings she regularly published throughout 1920 and 1921 in The Brownies Book, the monthly children's magazine edited by W.E.B. Dubois for "the children of the sun."
Brown drew cunning little elves playing in the hollyhocks, and fairies winged like butterflies (in a fin de sie cle style that recalls Aubrey Beardsley's). In "Look at this one--he is very fat!" an evil hare offers helpless puppies to a lion who resembles lions found in Oz. Brown's imagined animals, her heroes and her heroines, often have dark skin. Already she was working for black education. "The Brownies Book," wrote Dubois, was "designed for all children but especially for ours."
Brown began teaching teachers at the Miner Normal School here in 1923. "She designed the two-year art curriculum," writes Burwell. "She chaired the department. She was responsible for integrating the fine and industrial arts into teacher training in 1929. In 1933, she introduced the 'modern' approach to art education in the elementary schools, encouraging the replacement of imitative art by individual creativity."
The District's public schools, though inadequate in some ways, long have managed to employ devoted artist-pedagogues (Alma Thomas, Leon Berkowitz). A good part of the credit must go to Hilda Brown and to the teachers she taught.
In 1939 Brown did a set of linoleum block prints as illustrations for E. Franklin Frazier's "The Negro Family in the United States." Her pictures for The Brownies Book were linear and whimsical. The prints she did for Frazier are blockier and bold.
Brown's commercial illustrations, though entirely professional, have the look of work-for-pay. Her oils are her own. Their colors are subdued. Most painters work on canvas colored beige or white. Brown preferred darker grounds, red or terra cotta, and glimpses of those hues frequently appear at the fringes of her brushstrokes.
Her best streetscapes--"Ball Park," "Side Street," "University Neighborhood," "Third and Rhode Island, Le Droit Park"--though entirely representational at first glance, offer small surprises: the grays and greens and blues of that curving road, the arcs upon the lawn, the small freely brushed abstraction beside that tall brown smokestack.
Lines or rays of light cut strangely through these pictures. The lines that edge the turrets of the row houses in "University Neighborhood" do not end at the eaves but cut across the street, bringing with them sunlight that turns red bricks to gold. Despite their more adventurous passages, these pictures are easy to live with. Burwell was able to retrieve only a small number. Many more may well be hanging in the living rooms of houses around town.
The artist's husband, Dr. Schlee Brown, was a Washington physician. Like other progressive artists here--Sarah Baker, Jacob Kainen--Brown spent many summers painting on Cape Cod and on Martha's Vineyard. Someone ought to do a show on the Washington-New York-Cape Cod artists' network that flourished in the first half of this century, and it ought to include Brown.
Burwell's little catalogue includes a small undated snapshot of the painter, probably from the '20s. Her skin is fair, her smile shy, her eyes strangely knowing. Her face suggests her paintings. Her show closes Dec. 2.