Ralph Brownell McGrew (1916-1994) Biography

Ralph Brownell McGrew (1916-1994) Biography

R. Brownell McGrew specialized in luminous portraits and genre scenes of Navajo and Hopi Indians and for his Southwestern desert landscapes.

McGrew was born in Columbus, Ohio, and moved with his family to California during his middle school years.  He attended the Otis Institute of Art in Los Angeles from 1936 to 1940, spending his last year there teaching as well as studying.  He cited Ralph Holmes as the teacher who had the most influence on his work.

McGrew enjoyed portraiture and began his career doing society portraits as well as scenic and commercial work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia studios.  During World War II he did drafting and design work for Firestone Tire & Rubber.  He later moved to Palm Springs where he lived and painted for eighteen years.

In 1946 McGrew became the first recipient of the John F. and Anna Lee Stacey Fellowship from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.  He used the money for travel and study of the landscapes of the desert Southwest.  In the 1950s he traveled and painted with the noted desert painter, Jimmy Swinnerton, who introduced him to the Navajo and Hopi peoples of northern Arizona. 

From then on, Native Americans were his primary subject matter and he would drive the reservation roads in search of people, daily activities, and ceremonial events to depict.  McGrew was befriended by many tribal members who referred to him as "The Man Who Paints the Old." 

Starting in 1959 McGrew made photographs on the reservations, kept careful notes about what he saw, and corresponded with his models, putting together a remarkable record of Indian life.  The value of his observations was confirmed by the Heard Museum in Phoenix which later acquired McGrew's archive.

McGrew wanted his paintings to look saturated or wet even after they dried so he devised a recipe of oil paint, linseed oil and turpentine to achieve the effect without the use of varnish or glazes.  This, combined with carefully blended colors and brush strokes, and a very flat paint surface, gave McGrew's paintings an almost photographic quality.

McGrew and his wife, Ann, moved to La Quinta, California in 1960, then to Cottonwood, Arizona in 1965, to Quemado, New Mexico in 1972, and to Sonoita, Arizona in 1984.  He was elected to the Cowboy Artists of American in 1969 and became a charter member of the National Academy of Western Art at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1973.

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