William Crary Brownell was born to Isaac and Lucia Brown Brownell on 30 August 1851 in New York City. In January 1878, he married Virginia S. Swinburne, who died in 1911. He married his second wife, Gertrude Hall, in 1921.
He prepared for college at Charles Institute, Newport, Rhode Island and graduated from Amherst College in 1871. After graduation he joined the staff of the New York World, 1871-1879, first as a reporter and then as city editor. After that, he worked for The Nation in New York City from 1879 to 1881.
In 1879 he wrote an important survey of Whistler's early work, Brownell, William C., 'Whistler in Painting and Etching', for Scribner's Monthly.
He traveled to Europe in 1881 and spent most of his time there in Paris. Returning to America in 1884, he worked for the Philadelphia Press until 1888, and for Charles Scribner's Sons between 1888 and 1926.
A collection of manuscripts is in Amherst College Library, MA, documents his personal and professional life. Other papers document his family, especially his two wives, Virginia Swinburne Brownell and Gertrude Hall Brownell, whose correspondence is included.
Brownell, William C., 'Whistler in Painting and Etching', Scribner's Monthly, vol. 18, no. 4, August 1879, pp. 481-495; Amherst College Library website. (accessed 2004).