William Theophilus Brown (American, 1919–2012), Standing Bathers, 1993. Acrylic on paper, 23 x 28 1/2 in. Crocker Art Museum, Estate of Paul Wonner and William Theophilus Brown, 2019.22.7.

The Crocker Art Museum is pleased to announce Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, on view from April 30 through August 27, 2023. Early pioneers of Bay Area Figuration, artist couple Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown expanded their repertoire over the course of their careers to include new styles and subjects, from evocative landscapes with classic bathers to Baroque still lifes laden with everyday objects, animals, and flowers. Breaking the Rules is the most comprehensive exhibition of their work ever mounted with seventy-five paintings, watercolors, and drawings, and it offers an in-depth study of these two trailblazing artists.

“Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown were rulebreakers,” explains the Ted and Melza Barr Chief Curator & Associate Director, Scott A. Shields, Ph.D. “They broke rules in their art by embracing subject matter when nonobjectivity ruled the day, by taking risks with their painting techniques, and by their frequent depiction of male subjects, sometimes nude. They also broke the rules in their personal lives by choosing to live openly as a couple in the 1950s.”

Though Wonner and Brown were important contributors to the development of Bay Area Figuration, neither have had their work exhibited as often or as prominently as other masters of the style, nor have they received the same level of commercial appreciation. This is due to several factors, including their focus on male-to-male interactions and male nudes, misinterpretations of their important and early position within Bay Area Figuration, and the fact that they spent most of their working years in California rather than New York.

Breaking the Rules reexamines Wonner and Brown’s work in our own era of greater inclusivity, from their contributions to Bay Area Figuration to their artistic accomplishments later in their careers, and it celebrates their divergent backgrounds and unapologetic voices as artists who were both queer and Californian. After closing at the Crocker, the show travels to the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA (October 14, 2023–January 7, 2024) and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN (January 28–March 30, 2024).

About the Artists

Although today Wonner and Brown are thought of as California artists, neither was a native of the state. Wonner was born in Tucson, Arizona, and came to the San Francisco Bay Area to study at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1941. After serving in the U.S. Army in Texas, he spent time in New York working as a graphic designer while continuing his training at The Art Students League and Subjects of the Artist School. Brown, who hailed from Moline, Illinois, graduated with a degree in music from Yale in 1941. After serving in the army, he studied art in New York and Paris. The pair met at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1952 while earning their master’s degrees in art. They fell in love and stayed together for nearly 56 years.

Both Wonner and Brown were important contributors to the development of Bay Area Figuration, a rebellion against the widespread pursuit of Abstract Expressionism. Over time, both artists’ works became less gestural and more overtly representational and, in Wonner’s case, increasingly detailed and precise. Brown became best known for his psychologically evocative landscapes with classic bathers, as well as for his lonely urban scenes. Wonner also painted figures but received greatest acclaim for his “baroque” still lifes laden with everyday objects, animals, and flowers.

A 240-page catalogue, Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, is available for purchase in the Crocker Museum Store. The exhibition is curated by Scott A. Shields, Ph.D.

Paul Wonner (American, 1920–2008), Still Life with Flowers and a Note to KMK, 1992. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 in. Collection of Kevin and Sherry Kearney.


  • Art History Class: A Story of Love and Creativity, Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner (May 7)
  • Curator Lecture: Scott A. Shields on Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown (July 8)
  • Film Series: California Fresh II (June 15, July 20, August 17)
  • Teen Art Labs: Still Life Collage (June 1)
  • ArtMix: CAMP (June 8)
  • Studio Class: Figurative Painting (July 15, 22, & 29)