John George Brown


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Painter. As one of the most popular late-nineteenth-century American artists, he specialized in urban genre scenes. These usually focus on the lives of impoverished but appealing children, particularly male street urchins and waifs. Newsboys, bootblacks, performers, and sly charmers populate his images. Cute and usually cheerful, innocent although sometimes mischievous, his young entrepreneurs seem to personify the rags-to-riches myth of unbridled capitalism as they hustle pennies. Few contemporaries seem to have considered the adversity and pain that Brown's young subjects conceal. However, in the long run his sentimentally conceived representations of hardship may have contributed to the origins of child welfare reform. Earlier in his career, through the 1860s and 1870s, Brown addressed a wider range of subjects, including country scenes. Even then, however, he favored children, often depicting girls as well as boys in directly observed scenes of daily life. Born in Durham, England, Brown grew up in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he apprenticed as a glass-cutter and attended evening classes at the local art school. After a year in Edinburgh, in 1853 he emigrated to New York, where he continued his artistic training under Thomas Seir Cummings. Within two years, he had established his own portrait studio in Brooklyn but subsequently also took classes at the National Academy of Design. As his interest in genre developed, in 1860 he moved his studio into Manhattan's prestigious Tenth Street Studio Building while continuing to live in Brooklyn and then Fort Lee, New Jersey, until about 1870. Thereafter, he made his home in Manhattan but generally summered in rural locations. With its precisely rendered, clearly illuminated accumulation of detail, The Music Lesson (Metropolitan Museum, 1870) inventories features of a middle-class Victorian home. This display of material possessions provides a refined setting for self-improvement. The young man who bends close to his flute pupil is interested in something besides her musical education, yet their relationship remains for the moment free of amatory intentions. In both style and content, the painting reveals Brown's debt to mid-century English Pre-Raphaelitism, which shaped his enthusiasm for recording the exact appearance of contemporary life, as well as his conviction that art should provide moral instruction. In Bootblack with a Rose (Museum of Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, 1878), Brown presents a pensive street boy affixing a flower to his jacket. Elevating the moment above the rough-and-tumble world the child inhabits, this gesture of appreciation for beauty implies unsuspected spiritual possibilities.

Subjects: Art.

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