Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat is one of the largest of Joan Brown’s signature self-portraits and the first self-portrait by a woman to join the Crystal Bridges collection. Considered a second-generation Bay Area figurative artist, Brown’s work features an almost cartoon-like style, bright color, and a glossy finish, a result of the artist’s use of oil enamel paint on a smooth Masonite surface.
Brown grew up in San Francisco; an only child to an alcoholic father and an epileptic mother who often threatened to commit suicide, ultimately succeeding a year before this painting was made. She attended the California School of Fine Arts, where she met her mentor, Elmer Bischoff, one of the first-generation of Bay Area figurative painters who inspired a range of younger artists, including Wayne Thiebaut, whose Supine Woman also graces the Crystal Bridges collection.
Brown’s self-portraits are intensely personal and often feature symbolic figures of animals. For her, these represented “the connection and psychic response that the animal picks up from the person.” She was a long-distance swimmer who swam daily in the icy waters of San Francisco bay and regularly participated in the 1.5-mile Alcatraz Swim. Her works regularly feature references, both literal and symbolic, to this practice.
Later in her career, Brown’s practice turned toward sculpture and mosaic, and the artist herself developed a deep spirituality that led her to India. It was there that she met her untimely death, at the age of 52. While she was installing when of her mosaic obelisks at an ashram, a turret collapsed on her and two of her assistants, killing all three.
Brown pursued her art form the way she pursued her swimming: with focus and fearless intensity. She remained undisturbed if critics reviewed her art unfavorably, and never varied her manner of working to please anyone but herself.