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The art of Minnesota ‘regionalist’ Bob Brown

Robert Aaron Brown was a prolific St. Paul painter, mostly of watercolors, whose productive years were roughly 1930 to 1950.

“The Other Side of the Tracks (Swede Hollow)” by Bob Brown, ca. 1940. Watercolor on paper.
“The Other Side of the Tracks (Swede Hollow)” by Bob Brown, ca. 1940. Watercolor on paper.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Born and reared in Berlin, Wisconsin, by 1915 Bob Brown had moved to St. Paul and found work as a commercial artist. He served briefly in the U.S. Army during World War I, stationed in Iowa. In 1918 he married Louise Driese of St. Paul, also a commercial artist. The couple toured Europe in the early 1920s, and around that time Brown also studied at the Art Students League in New York City. He and Louise moved in 1930 to Greenwich Village, where Brown failed to make a living as a painter.

Back in St. Paul, Brown left his wife and took up with writer Meridel Le Sueur, with whom he lived on occasion, and to whom he remained devoted the rest of his life. His letters to her display both an unquenchable passion and an imaginative use of the English language. “I’d rather be 100% assembled—alert, than rich.” “A word, just slight, is so reassuring of rhythmic ventricle in your excellent turbine.” “The outside caress of the world up and over.” He had three passions: his art, Meridel Le Sueur, and the bottle. Alcoholism sometimes drove him to despair: “Tomb is still, jug is empty, follow’d hallucination in 2 oblivion & nothing but black remorse.”

Bob Brown
Bob Brown
With contemporaries Stanford Fennelle, Clement Haupers, and others, he participated in the Minnesota “regionalist” style of painting promoted by the New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP). In 1936 one Bob Brown painting appeared in the New Horizons in American Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He had solo shows at the Walker Art Center in 1940, and the St. Paul Public Library in 1941. Local art critics reviewed these shows favorably. John Sherman in the Minneapolis Star Journal wrote that Brown’s work “provides adventure and stimulation,” and that “Bob Brown has a muscular art that has few pictorial cliches.” James Gray of the St. Paul Dispatch found “freshness of insight” and “flashing brilliance of technique.” The Walker Art Center displayed his works in group shows in 1943, 1944, and 1949. He painted large works in support of the Minnesota war effort in the 1940s, and had several works on display at the Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives (Ah-Gwah-Ching) in Walker.

Employment by FAP was probably the only steady work Brown had in his adult life. He lived alone in St. Paul’s old Seven Corners neighborhood, patronized the bars, and painted. By the early 1950s he was a well-known street character who sometimes traded paintings for drinks.

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Brown died of a heart attack while on a walk in his neighborhood, in June 1954. His wife, Louise, whom he never divorced, had him buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. She died in 1963. In 1965 the Saint Paul Art Center held a retrospective show of his work.

Brown’s works disappeared from view for the next 20 years. Local banks held hundreds as collateral for unpaid loans, until a federal bankruptcy court determined ownership. In the mid-1980s Walter Bush, founder of the Minnesota North Stars hockey team, bought the collection, then placed it in storage again for another 20 years. Most of those works have since been sold to private buyers; some (seventy pieces) were donated to the Minnesota Historical Society, which holds the biggest known collection of his work. No one knows how many works Brown produced or where they all are. Museums around the country, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) in Minneapolis, hold a handful.

In 2022 Meridel LeSueur’s daughter, Deborah LeSueur, donated photographic images of nearly 300 Bob Brown works to the Ramsey County Historical Society.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.