Historic painting of Yellowstone by African-American Pennsylvania artist acquired by Penn State museum

A rare painting of an iconic landscape in Yellowstone National Park by a Harrisburg-born African American artist has been added to the collection at the Palmer Museum of Art in Penn State.

The museum bought the 1889 painting Hot Springs at Yellowstone by artist Grafton Tyler Brown, born in Harrisburg in 1841, to help free black parents.

Brown, known for his landscapes of western motifs, painted more than 2 dozen pictures of the majestic terrain in Yellowstone between 1886-91, which had only been designated as a national park two decades earlier.

“Landscape paintings by 19th-century African American artists are extremely rare,” said Erin Coe, director of the museum. “This work is the first by an African-American artist of the time to be added to the museum’s collection.”

Brown spent his early childhood in Pennsylvania, where his parents had moved from the slave state of Maryland in 1837.

As a teenager he moved to California and worked for a well-known lithographer in San Francisco. He took over the company in 1865 and renamed it GT Brown & Co. The company flourished producing cityscapes, maps, and advertising heads in the 1860s and 1870s until Brown sold the company in 1878.

With no formal training, he turned to landscape painting in the 1880s and began touring northwest through Victoria, British Columbia. Tacoma, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Helena, Montana, finally settled in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1893.

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Brown is perhaps best known for his eye-catching and detailed depictions of the natural wonders of Yellowstone.

The Yellowstone Hot Springs, from a key period in Brown’s career, are a vivid representation of the tiered and striped rock formations there, charismatically capturing the almost otherworldly quality of the region’s signature hydrothermal pools.

“Brown always seemed to find something new in Yellowstone to bring back familiar pools, geysers and canyons with a fresh eye,” said Adam Thomas, curator of American art at the museum. “Hot Springs at Yellowstone is very likely Brown’s first painting in a public collection in his home state, which makes the acquisition all the more meaningful.”

The acquisition was made with funds from the Terra Art Enrichment Fund 2020 and is part of the museum’s strategic plan to improve diversity and representation in the collection.

Museum visitors can view the newly acquired Brown painting on the first floor of the museum in the Snowiss Galleries of American Art. Free tickets can be reserved via palmermuseum.psu.edu.

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