A refined, subdued presence among the abstract expressionists, Bradley Walker Tomlin created paintings that were both forceful and original in their sensitive color and compositional restraint. Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1899, Tomlin became interested in art early on, receiving a scholarship at age fourteen to study sculpture. Later, from 1917 to 1921, he studied painting at Syracuse University, moving to New York after graduation. He worked there for a short time as a magazine illustrator. A fellowship permitted Tomlin to go to Paris in 1923 to study at the Académie Colarossi and Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Upon returning to New York in 1924, he continued commercial illustration until 1929 and began exhibiting at the Whitney Studio Club.
Tomlin received his first one-person exhibition in 1926. He traveled again to Europe the following year. In 1929, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts acquired a Tomlin work; it was his first museum purchase. During the Depression, he began teaching for extra income—first at preparatory schools in New York, then at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York (1932 to 1941). His exposure to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936–37 “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” exhibition helped liberate his style, leading him toward surrealist-inspired, less realistic compositions. From 1939 to 1944, Tomlin worked in a cubist mode that had a decorative quality. In 1945, Tomlin met Adolph Gottlieb, through whom he became associated with Robert Motherwell, Phillip Guston, and Jackson Pollock. Influenced by their abstract and expressive styles, Tomlin turned away from cubism to adopt a more spontaneous and abstract style, as he began experimenting with automatism. Although Tomlin’s art was affected by the work of these Abstract Expressionists, he developed a stylistic idiom that was somewhat more subdued and restrained, and wholly his own.