Street Scene, West Indies, 1915
Inscriptionssigned and dated 'f brownell 15' (lower left).
ProvenanceAcquired, probably directly from the artist, by the grandfather of the present Private Collection, Ottawa.
ExhibitionsEdmonton, Alberta, The Edmonton Art Gallery, Canadian Art Club : 1907 - 1915, April - 12 June 1988, no cat. no.
PublicationsRobert J. Lamb, The Canadian Art Club : 1907 - 1915 (Edmonton, Alberta: Edmonton Art Gallery, 1988), reproduced in colour, p. 9.
Although referring to another St. Kitts painting Arthur Lismer penned a description easily appropriate to the master work presently available, Brownell’s oil on canvas work Street Scene, West Indies of 1915. Lismer writes,
The most striking characteristic [...] is the vivacity and sparkling animation of its aspect. It is painted with great freedom and enjoyment. The clean strong colour admirably expresses the character of the subject [...]. It is the feeling of sunny, almost boisterous weather that is the chief attraction .
Observe the masterly painting of the sky. These clouds are not elements put in for purely decorative purposes, they are weather laden argosies. They give a majestic feeling of space to the whole composition. [...] The dresses of the native women white, creamy, lavender, create a luminous and contrasting tone scheme. [...] His colour is clean and vivid, his effects of cloud, weather, sunlight and flickering shadows manifest the touch of a master artist. [...] The scintillating pattern of light and dark, of bright and intense colour and grayer areas presents a magical effect of energy and pleasurable animation. 
The noted former director of the National Gallery of Canada, J. Russell Harper praised Brownell’s island pictures, writing in Painting in Canada: A History, “...the vivid sunshine of the West Indies revolutionized the subject matter and light of his canvases; his paintings of natives with their brilliant handkerchiefs and red pottery were thereafter highpoints of his production” . Similarly, Dennis Reid in his landmark text, A Concise History of Canadian Painting, wrote that Brownell’s mastery of “light and colour [...] began — as in The Beach, St. Kitts — to alleviate the academic routine of his earlier work" . In A Short History of Canadian Art, Graham McInnes states, “Brownell’s West Indian scenes have the brightness and hardness of diamonds” .
It has been long recognized that Brownell’s style underwent a significant change after a trip to the West Indies in the early 1900s. In the tropics, he entered a world of exotic textiles and landscapes of intense, unimaginably bright colours. By 1915, he made several trips to the area and excitedly made more than forty canvases, watercolours, and pastels  . One such work, On the Beach, Basse-Terre, W.I. was purchased for the National Gallery by Eric Brown at the 1914 R.C.A. exhibition . Brown was the first director of the National Gallery, Brownell’s good friend and, on at least one occasion, the artist’s travel companion to the West Indies . Brown remained a great advocate of Brownell’s artwork and in the 1922 retrospective exhibition for the artist held at the National Gallery of Canada, Eric Brown wrote,
Mr. Brownell is, before all else, a landscape painter [...] [his] receptiveness was never more evident than during his visit to the West Indies when he laid hold of an entirely new life between sea and sky and made it his own series of pictures, which those that saw them after his return will remember as one of the most interesting exhibitions they ever saw .
In Street Scene, West Indies, 1915, we witness a bustling island street where the intensity of Brownell’s light is so vivid that one can nearly feel the heat of the Caribbean sun as it bounces from the beaming street, buildings, and the gleaming garments of his figures. The foreground is largely unpopulated, with only a handful of the frontal figures flanking the left and right of the canvas. Instead, Brownell masterfully ornaments his street with a delicate dance of colourful brushstrokes of varied direction and length.
Brownell's formal training is evidenced in Street Scene, West Indies by his obvious knowledge of artistic devices, namely in his creating a central vanishing point. Intervals of flashy red flags run parallel to the street, stressing the continuity and guide our eye toward a busy crowd in the distance. Similarly, Brownell’s rendering of sunlight and a hazy mist to soften the contours of objects such as the flags and rooftops makes them appear to be less defined, thus creating a sense of depth and grand spaciousness. This same effect can be seen in the hills that loom just beyond the buzzing congregation, whose brilliantly blue tops seem to coalesce with the horizon.
In the October 1915 Canadian Art Club exhibition, Brownell submitted at least two pictures from a trip to St. Thomas, numbers 25 and 27, Boat Landing, St. Thomas, Dutch West Indies and Charlotte Aumalie [sic], Dutch West Indies, respectively . In the 1988 show The Canadian Art Club: 1907-1915 curator Robert Lamb notes that our Street Scene, West Indies to be of a similar subject to Charlotte Aumalie [sic], Dutch West Indies . We might speculate, then, that these two pictures are from the St. Thomas area. It has also been suggested to us that the area may be St. Kitts and Nevis looking toward Mount Liamuiga, near Independence Square (formerly Pall Mall Square).
At a time of scarcity for outstanding compositions in good restorative condition by Brownell, this Antillean scene is as stunning an example as anything in his oeuvre. The majority of pictures from this relatively small series, which numbers around 40 canvases, are housed in institutions or remain in private hands, making Street Scene, West Indies a rare treasure of its kind.
1. Arthur Lismer, “The Beach St. Kitt’s [sic], by Franklin Brownell,” Outline for Picture Study, series 1, no. 7 (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, n.d. [1932?], unpaginated.
3. J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 217
4. Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 123
5. Graham McInnes, Short History of Canadian Art, (Toronto: MacMillan Co., 1939), p. 50
6. Elizabeth Cadiz Topp, Endless Summer: Canadian artists in the Caribbean, (Kleinberg, Ont.: McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1988), p. 22
7. How many trips and when these trips took place is unclear. Elizabeth Topp speculates that it was any number of trips during different “seasons” from the period of 1911 to 1914, as Brownell’s Caribbean vistas of which Topp was aware at the time of the show are dated as such. The present Street Scene, West Indies, 1915 suggests a possible trip after the aforementioned dates. See Topp, 1988, p. 37, note 35 for further details.
8. On the Beach, Bassetreem W.I., 1914, Oil on canvas, 87.6 x 77.3 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Accession No. 1033.
9. Jim Burant and Robert Stacey, North by South: The Art of Peleg Franklin Brownell, (Ottawa: Ottawa Art Gallery, 1998), p. 92
10. Eric Brown, Retrospective Exhibition of the work of Franklin Brownell, R.C.A, November 1st to 30th, (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1922), p. 3
11. Catalogue of the Canadian Art Club Eight Annual Exhibition, 1915, (s.l. [Toronto?]: s.n., 1915), unpaginated
12. Robert J. Lamb, The Canadian Art Club : 1907 - 1915, (Edmonton, Alberta: Edmonton Art Gallery, 1988), p. 87