Born in 1859 in Natick, Massachusetts, Charles Francis Browne and his family moved to nearby Waltham in 1865. From an early age, Browne developed an interest in art, spending time painting and sketching on his own. Upon viewing J.M.W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the young boy confirmed his desire to pursue a career as an artist.
After a few years working as a junior merchant in Boston, Browne enrolled in night art classes at the Boston Museum School in 1882. Showing great talent in drawing, the young artist quickly acquired a position as a designer in Boston’s Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Co., where he befriended fellow art student, Edmund C. Tarbell. Browne continued his artistic studies in Boston until 1884.
His training resumed in Philadelphia, where he studied under realist painter Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1885-1887, and was exposed to the teachings and doctrines of the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, whose spiritualism and writings greatly influenced Browne’s outlook and life. In the summer of 1887, Browne studied landscape painting in Boston with Abbott Handerson Thayer. The following fall, the young student travelled to France, where he received two years of instruction from A.F.A. Schenck and renowned Academic painter Jean-Leon Gerome at the Académie Julian in Paris.
Returning to America, Browne eventually settled in Chicago in 1892, where he became an active and prominent member of the art circle. He received a commission to paint a mural for the Children’s Building of the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition. In addition to joining the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Browne served as an art critic for the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Likewise, he participated in several artist clubs, many of which he performed time as president, and later became an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1913.
In the summer of 1895, along with sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil and writer Hamlin Garland, Browne journeyed to the Southwest where he toured Indian reservations in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. They visited the Navajo, and Hopis, and the Zunis. His trip resulted in many Native American portraits and genre scenes.
Browne was also a highly successful landscapist, spending summers in Oregon, Illinois, where he and many other Chicago artists founded the Eagle’s Nest Colony in 1898. Elsewhere, the artist captured the landscapes of Southern California, where he later served as superintendent of the United States section of the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915. Beyond the U.S., Browne traveled to Europe, painting in Scotland’s Arran Islands and France’s Seine Valley. While Assistant Art Commissioner to Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile in 1910, the artist rendered scenes of the two South American cities.
Browne followed traditional painting values, favoring quiet, intimate scenes and smooth surfaces. In 1894, in collaboration with artists like the sculptor Lorado Taft, he contributed an essay entitled "Conservative Painter," in the influential pamphlet Impressions on Impressionism. After the turn of the century and his European excursions, Browne gradually became more receptive to various aspects of Impressionism, adopting a looser brushwork and showing an interest in the effects of light, all the while remaining representational with his landscape paintings.
In 1919, while spending the summer at the Eagle's Nest Art Colony, Browne became paralyzed. He died the following March in 1920 at his mother's home in Waltham, Massachusetts.