Jonathan Mayer Brown was born on July 15, 1939, in Springfield, Mass. His father, Leonard M. Brown, was an insurance agent; his mother, Jean (Levy) Brown, was a librarian. Both were avid art collectors, traveling regularly to Manhattan, where they picked up small Abstract Expressionist works by Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Franz Kline. Jean Brown later became a major collector and patron of the experimental, interdisciplinary art movement Fluxus. (Her vast archive of Fluxus material is now housed in the Getty Center in Los Angeles.)
In 1956, Professor Brown entered Dartmouth College, where he initially studied Spanish literature. It was while spending his junior year in Spain, where he read José Ortega y Gasset’s 1948 book on Velázquez and encountered the artist’s work “live,” that he shifted his focus from literature to art.
After graduating from Dartmouth, he enrolled as an art history graduate student at Princeton University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1964 with a dissertation on Sevillian Baroque painting. He began teaching there, and after his first book, “Italy and Spain, 1600-1700,” was published in 1970 and awarded the Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize by the College Art Association of America, he was made an associate professor.
In 1973, N.Y.U. recruited him to be director of the Institute of Fine Arts, the university’s graduate program in art history. He was appointed a full professor there in 1977 and continued teaching for 40 years, until his retirement in 2017, mentoring generations of teachers and curators.
Over time, his own books and exhibitions arrived in a steady flow. He wrote or contributed to monographs on El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, Jusepe de Ribera and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, most of them accompanying exhibitions that he curated or collaborated on. In 1986, he published the landmark “Velázquez: Painter and Courtier,” a much-praised critical biography. His book “The Golden Age of Painting in Spain” (originally published in 1991, then expanded in 1998 and republished as “Painting in Spain 1500-1700”) is widely regarded as the standard survey of the subject.