Samuel Marsden Brookes

Smelts, Samuel Marsden Brookes, oil on board
Smelts, Samuel Marsden Brookes, oil on board

Samuel Marsden Brookes was born in England in 1816 to a wealthy Dutch family that traced its ancestry back to a 17th century knight and lady in waiting in the court of William of Orange. His father was a botanist who operated a nursery in London. In 1833 the family moved to America to settle near the newly founded town of Chicago. Despite disapproval by his father, as a teenager Brookes decided he wanted to be an artist and he began copying traveling portrait artists of the day producing his own miniature portraits. He married and by 1845 had saved enough from his career as a frontier portrait painter to travel to Europe where he spent a year copying masterpieces in the galleries of London. He returned a more accomplished artist to a thriving career in Wisconsin as a portrait painter of influential people, including Indian chiefs. He also became known as a genre and historical painter.

Maritime painter Gideon Denny left San Francisco in 1851 to study with Brookes for six years and in 1862 Brookes followed Denny to San Francisco. Brookes later sent for his wife and six children and settled them in a family home in the Mission District. Brookes and Denny shared a studio for many years where Brookes focused on portraits. In 1865 Brookes helped organize the California Art Union, eventually becoming vice president of the San Francisco Art Association and a founder of the Bohemian Club. Although he never training formally himself, Brookes began teaching art from the age of 25 and continued throughout his career. Among his students in San Francisco was the young William Keith. In the 1870s he shared his studio with artist Edward Deakin, a painter of landscapes and architecture. A famous painting by Deakin in the collection of the de Young Museum shows Samuel Brookes painting in his ramshackle studio.

By the 1880s Brookes was a prominent figure in the art world of San Francisco and his studio was a popular gathering place for artists of the day. He had a notable presence as a short, stocky man, with a large head, long hair and beard and a cigar clenched at all times between his teeth. Brookes became renowned for his meticulously detailed still life paintings of fish, flowers, fruit, and birds, often in a cascading arrangement. He is considered to be the finest American still life painter of the 19th Century (Karlstom, 2011). He received numerous commissioned by Mrs. Mark Hopkins, including his famous painting of a peacock, and E. B. Crocker, with some of his paintings fetching up to $10,000 each (AskArt). Many of his paintings were lost when the Hopkins mansion, which had become the Hopkins Institute of Art, burned in the earthquake and fire of 1906. The Society of California Pioneers has two Samuel Brooks still lifes, one with fish and one with fowl.


AskArt – Art  Appraisals, Art Value. Action Prices, Art Database.

Karlstrom, Paul J. The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art. Vol. 1. Ed. Marter, Joan. Oxford UniversityPress.

Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.

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