Pieter Irwin Brown was a European artist who contributed to the shin hanga movement during the 1930's. Born in Rotterdam of Dutch and Irish parentage, Pieter studied art from childhood, first with a private tutor and later at the local art school. His family moved to Utrecht during his teenage years. There he attended a design school where he learned about architectural decoration, including wallpaper designs and stained glass. At the age of eighteen, Pieter entered the Royal Academy in Amsterdam where he studied for two years under Professor Jurres.
After his schooling was finished, Brown began to travel widely throughout Europe and Africa. He especially enjoyed spending several months in Tunisia and this experience was recalled in paintings for many years afterwards. During his travels, Brown supported himself by working as a freelance artist. He eventually settled in London and started a small advertising business. He designed advertising posters and his partner, a man named Rickman Ralph, ran the financial side of the business. The clients of 'Ralph and Brown, Poster Artists' included several railroad companies, the National Radio Corporation, and the London County Council. It was a successful and exciting business but Brown's desire to travel outweighed any need for stability.
In the early 1930's, Brown made a short visit to Egypt and then travelled to Indonesia, staying on the island of Java for two years. Again he supported himself by working as a freelance artist and illustrator. By 1934, he was on the move again - this time to Japan. When he arrived, Brown was immediately struck by the beauty and history inherent in the Japanese landscape. He wrote:
In Kyoto I saw Japanese prints all over the place. My own house late at night against the moon was a print. The temples harmoniously interwoven with the shapely pines were prints. The women in kimono walking along the river under the weeping willows were old prints.
From his home in Kyoto, Brown made trips to China, Manchuria, and Korea. One of the places that especially interested him was Jehol, located in the northwest Chinese province of Hebei. The Chinese emperor Kangxi (1662-1723) had chosen Jehol as the site for an imperial summer palace because of its cool climate and natural beauty. The imperial palace was completed by Kangxi's successor Qianlong (1736-96), who also built many temples around the surrounding lakes and mountains. Jehol was abandoned in the late 19th century and had probably suffered from vandalism by the time Brown visited it. Since the 1960's, Jehol (now called Chengde) has been protected and restored by the Chinese government. Brown made many drawings of this area which would later be turned into woodblock prints.
Around 1935, Brown met the woodblock publisher Watanabe Shozaburo and sold him several drawings of Japanese scenes. Watanabe used these as the basis for woodblock prints which he showed to Brown several months later. Over the next couple years, Brown also designed prints for Adachi Toyohisa, the proprietor of the Adachi Institute of Prints. Adachi primarily made ukiyo-e reproduction prints and Brown was the only Westerner to collaborate with him on original prints. Adachi published several prints based on Brown's Chinese landscapes, including Jehol and Peking. In addition, Brown designed two series of greeting cards and two prints of the U.S. consulate in Yokohama, commissioned by Richard Boyce.
The sum total of Brown's prints has not been documented. It is at least twenty designs and probably closer to thirty. According to J. Stewart Tease, a collector who lived in Japan during the 1930's, the prints published by Watanabe only have the artist's signature and do not bear a Watanabe publisher's seal. This has caused some collectors to assume that all of Brown's prints were published by Adachi, which is not the case. The prints made by Adachi have a red PIB cartouche within the image and bear the artist's signature and an embossed Adachi seal in the margin.
In 1937, P.D. Perkins, a Pasadena book and print dealer, compiled a partial list of Brown's prints. This catalogue listed 19 prints and a commentary on Brown's work. Perkins summed up Brown's distinctive style, saying "the strength in his prints lies, perhaps, in his elimination of non-essentials." Like other shin hanga artists, Brown used the Western techniques of perspective and shadowing to create dimensionality and depth. However, he was clearly inspired by the flat areas of color in ukiyo-e prints. The print Fuji from Mitsuhama exemplifies his attempts to combine these ideas. The foreground of the print is starkly realistic and dimensional while the background has a limited palette and minimal details creating a flat decorative effect. In some prints like Shrine in Tokyo, Brown eliminated the outlining keyblock altogether.
Several of Brown's prints were used as illustrations in "Karakoro: at Home in Japan", a book by Henry Noel published in 1939. As indicated in the book, these prints were lent by Watanabe. Brown also designed a poster for the Japanese National Railroad depicting a deer at the gate of the Itsukushima Shrine. He left Japan for the U.S. in 1940, intending to return and design other woodblock prints. He may have returned to Japan later in life, but it is unlikely that he designed any other prints. Around this time Brown began using the name 'Pieter van Oort' and at least one of his woodblock prints was signed with this name. During the 1940's, his woodblock prints were featured in several exhibits in China and Japan, and at the Los Angeles County Museum in June 1946. He eventually moved to New York and little is known about the rest of his life.