John George Brown (1831–1913)

One of the most successful genre painters of the nineteenth century, known specifically for his depictions of city boys.

By Chelsea DeLay

I do not paint poor boys solely because the public likes such pictures and pays me for them, but because I love the boys myself, for I too, was once a poor lad like them.
—John George Brown

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

John George Brown was born November 11, 1831, in Bensham, a small town in northern England. Brown showed an early talent for drawing, a skill that was threatened when he was involved in an accident that permanently scarred his right hand.[1] Determined to overcome this obstacle, Brown went on to complete a seven year apprenticeship at a glass factory in 1845.[2] During the last three years of his apprenticeship, he took on the additional task of attending night classes at the Government School of Design, where his was taught by William B. Scott.[3]

Brown studied drawing for a short time at the Government Royal Academy in London, but he boarded a ship to America in 1853; history credits the emigration songs of Harry Russell as acting as Brown’s motivation. During the voyage, Brown’s pen captured the intimate moments of fellow immigrant families and children, and he sold them to earn money for his arrival stateside.[4] He settled in Brooklyn, New York, and soon after was hired at the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company.

In 1855, Brown married Mary Ann Owen, the daughter of his manager at the Brooklyn Glass Factory, with whom he had several children. The year of 1856 marked a pivotal shift in Brown’s artistic career; he began to paint portraits.[5] His paintings were at first met with moderate success, but his career went on to explode as the popularity of his street children caught on in the art market. In 1860, Brown moved his family into Manhattan, where he also began working full time in his studio.

Brown’s efforts as an artist were awarded in 1862, when he was made an Associate member of the National Academy, and again a year later, when he gained full membership.[6] As a supporter of the newly emerging American School, Brown was an early advocate of shifting away from European formalism, however, echoes of his English training are evident in the restrained brushwork and sculptural modeling of his subjects.[7]

Brown believed that it should be the goal of every painter to preserve all aspects of modern American life, and it was easy for him to find inspiration and models right outside of his Manhattan doorstep. During the 1870s, Brown’s depictions of young street children— bootblacks, newsboys, and flower sellers, to name a few—became so sought after and highly reproduced that he began purchasing the copyrights for his own works.[8]

The high volume of his works that permeated New York’s art market during the 1870s and 1880s demonstrated not only Brown’s skill as an artist, but the high regard in which the public received him. Described as “…fond of his craft, fond of his pipe, fond of work, fond of good fellowship,” Brown was known as a an artist who owed his success to both his talent and shrewd business sense.[9] In 1882, Harper’s Weekly reported, “…We have no more popular artist in America than J. G. Brown.”[10]

The children seen in John George Brown’s paintings demonstrate a fusion of realism and ideal beauty, and his works were successfully exhibited long after his death in 1913. Brown’s paintings continue to be regarded as historical snapshots of nineteenth century urbanity in New York City.

II. Chronology

1831 Born in Bensham, England
1845–52 Apprenticed in the glass trade in Newcastle, England
1849–52 Enrolled in night classes at the Government School of Design
1852 Spent the summer studying in London at the Government Royal Academy
1853 Immigrated to the Brooklyn, New York, where he began work at Brooklyn Flint Glass Co.
1855 Married Mary Anne Owen, the daughter of his manager at Brooklyn Flint Glass Co.
1857–59 Enrolled at the National Academy of Design
1862 Moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey
1863 Elected as a full member of the National Academy of Design
1864 Joined the Century Association
Gained status as a US citizen
1865 Painted his first street-boy
1881 Exhibited studies and sketches at the Brooklyn Art Association
1889 Served as a juror for American Art at the Paris Universal Exhibition, where he was also awarded Honorable Mention
1893 Served on the national jury for American art at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago
1899–1903 Served as vice president of the National Academy of Design
1913 Died from pneumonia in New York City, on February 8

III. Collections

Arthur L. and Valerie L. Young Collection, NE
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, MA
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Chrysler Museum of Art, VA
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Collection Walter and Lucille Rubin, FL
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Daniel J. Terra Collection, IL
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Detroit Museum of Art, MI
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, MA
Green-Wood Cemetery Collection, NY
High Museum of Art, GA
John H. Surovek Gallery, FL
Joslyn Art Museum, NE
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
National Academy Museum, NY
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Peabody Institute, Baltimore
San Antonio Museum of Art, TX
The Manoogian Collection, MI
The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, TX
Toledo Museum of Art, OH
Turak Gallery of American Art, PA
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, CT
Walters Art Museum, MD
Washington and Lee University, VA
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Williams College Museum of Art, MA

IV. Exhibition History

Boston Athenaeum
Mechanics’ Institute, Boston, medals
1879, 1882, 1885, 1895 Art Institute of Chicago
1889 Paris Universal Exposition, awarded Honorable Mention
1894 Boston Art Club
1894 California, medals
1901 Pan-Am Exposition, Buffalo, medals
1907–08 Corcoran Gallery
2001 American Masters: The Manoogian Collection

Regular Exhibitor:
1851–91 Brooklyn Art Association
1858–70, 1872–1913 National Academy of Design
1860, 1862–67, 1869, 1871–80, 1882–83 Artists’ Fund Society
1862–63, 1865–67, 1876, 1883, 1888, 1894 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1865–66, 1869–83, 1885–86, 1888–90, 1893–1900, 1905–1907 Century Club
1872, 1874–77, 1879–80, 1883, 1885, 1887–1905, 1907 American Watercolor Society
1878–1913 Gill’s Art Galleries

V. Memberships

1859 Brooklyn Art Social, founding member
1861 Brooklyn Arts Association, founding member
1861 Artists’ Fund Society, President 1897–1907
1862 Brooklyn Sketch Club, founding member;
National Academy of Design, Associate Membership
1863 National Academy of Design, Full Membership, Vice President, 1899–1903
1864 Century Association
1867 American Watercolor Society, President, 1887–1904

VII. Suggested Resources

1. Peter H. Falk, Who Was Who in American Art (Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999), 486.
2. Martha Hoppin, The World of J. G. Brown (Chesterfield: Chameleon Books, 2010).

VIII. Notes

1. Staff Writer, “The New York Street Boy In Art,” in Peterson Magazine (1894–1897) VI, no. 7 (1895), n.p.
2. Martha Hoppin, The World of J. G. Brown (Chesterfield, Chameleon Books, 2010), 9.
3. John J. A’Becket, “The Child-Painter” in St Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks 22, no. 12 (Century Club, 1895): 973.
4. Staff Writer, n.p.
5. Ibid.
6. A’Becket, 977.
7. Hoppin, 14.
8. A’Becket, 978.
9. Hoppin, 13.
10. Harper’s Weekly 26 (15 April 1882): 231.

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