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Colleen Browning: The Enchantment of Realism

Written by Aksel Ritenis



Major retrospective of her work opens on May 24th at the National Academy of Design in New York

Colleen Browning: The Enchantment of Realism (Hudson Hills Press), written by Fairfield University, CT art history professor Dr. Philip Eliasoph, details the dramatic and prolific 70-year career of Colleen Browning (1918- 2003) one of America’s leading realists painters. She was a child protégé, who began exhibiting in her early teens.

The book, sponsored by the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA) is the first extensive study and definitive work about Browning and details her distinctive brand of figurative painting. From depicting worshipers in a Guatemalan church to graffiti-covered Harlem subways, the artist was a major force in the American realist movement largely dominated by men.

Browning and her husband emigrated from England and arrived in New York during the tumultuous New York art scene of the early 1950s. At this time, Abstract/Action painting was in ascendance and Browning quickly rose to the top ranks of the Magic Realists. This cadre – including Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Robert Vickrey and Andrew Wyeth – withstood the pressure of avant-gardism to explore human conditions and urban street scenes even in the face of being dismissed as being retrograde academicians. Eliasoph’s text re-evaluates Browning’s career in terms of this seismic shift, thereby contextualizing her achievements in a new light.


During her initial New York City years, she achieved fame and recognition for her paintings featuring “American scenes.” These included views of life from her East Harlem fire escape featuring black and Puerto Rican children at play. Her work was shown at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery in New York, the destination for realist art during that decade of the 50s.

The artist went on to depict life abroad on the Caribbean island of Grenada and other exotic locations. The breadth of her talent is evident in her subject matter which included Edenic gardens and lush jungles; portraits – herself and others at close range; her umbrella and “shielded” women series; still life nudes and bathers.

Additionally, she created semi-abstractions; a subway series, mythologies and romantic fairytales and finally, the hidden psyche – mystics, clairvoyants and dreamers. This incredible body of work spanned over five decades and won Browning critical acclaim including the coveted Carnegie International Award. She was also a prominent contributor to the realist revival of the 1990s.

Browning’s work has been included in the National Academy of Design’s yearly exhibition as well as shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial exhibitions, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Kennedy Galleries in New York and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, which is today the largest repository of Browning works in the country. She was elected a National Academician in 1966, and served as an officer of the Academy.


Despite her impressive body of work, Colleen Browning has been almost forgotten in contemporary times. A bequest from her estate left many of her paintings to the SAMA, headquartered in Loretto, PA, which she visited in the 1990s as a lecturer.

SAMA has organized a retrospective of Browning’s most admired paintings. The exhibition opens on May 24th at the National Academy of Design in New York. It will then travel to the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery at Fairfield University, The Butler University of American Art in Youngstown, OH and the Amarillo Museum of Art in Amarillo, TX.

For further information:

Mary Frances Duffy

The Dilenschneider Group


Cell: 917-854-6580

About the author

Aksel Ritenis

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