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 John George Brown  (1831 - 1913)

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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: juvenile-other figure and genre and landscape painting

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John George Brown
from Auction House Records.
Bird Nesting
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born into a poor family in Durham, England, John George Brown earned a reputation as one of 19th-century America's most skilled painters of children, especially entrepreneurial, cheerful street urchins who earned a pittance as boot blacks, newspaper vendors, etc. In some circles, he was dubbed the "Boot Black Raphael" because of the glowing faces of his child figures and his skill of execution. His paintings of these sympathy-arousing children were so popular in a Victorian era of increased industrialization that he became rich from painting sales as well as royalties from lithographs.

Brown showed early drawing talent but was discouraged by his lawyer father who insisted that he learned a trade, so he apprenticed for seven years with a glass cutter at Newcastle-On-Tyne. He worked at this trade in Edinburgh, Scotland and attended the School of the Royal Scottish Academy under Robert Scott Lauder.

At age 22, he went to London and earned a living painting portraits. Inspired by a music hall performer singing about the fascination of American life, he emigrated to Brooklyn and supported himself as a glass cutter at the Flint Glass Works in Brooklyn. His designs so impressed his employer that he helped Brown study in New York with miniaturist Thomas Cummings whose daughter Brown married.

He studied art at night at the National Academy of Design, and in May, 1856, rented his first studio, which was located in Brooklyn. In 1860, he began painting his signature portraits and juvenile figures, and in 1863, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design. He also served as a teacher at the Academy where his classes were very popular.

To escape the pressure of his buying public and pursue other talents, he painted landscapes, some of them rural scenes including the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Hudson River Valley with treatment of light and shadow, in the style of Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge. One of his exhibition venues was the California State Fair in 1881 and 1884.

Michael David Zellman, "300 Years of American Art"
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"

Biography from Roughton Galleries,Inc:

John George Brown's sentimentalized portrayals of street urchins, reproduced by the thousands, made him the richest and most celebrated genre painter in turn-of-the-century America. Born in Durham, England in 1831, Brown studied art in England and Scotland before coming to America in 1853.

He was a glassblower in Brooklyn, and a student at the National Academy of Design in New York City. He opened a studio there in 1860, when his painting "His First Cigar" launched his national reputation. Brown exploited his considerable talent to supply the Victorian taste for his specialty-adept (copyrighted) pictures of young white shoeshiners, vendors and servants.

From the 1860s on, his reputation as "the boot-black Raphael" never flagged. Toward the end of his life, his yearly income averaged $40,000. Originals sold for $500 to $700. Royalties from just one lithograph, distributed with packaged tea, totaled $25,000.Though he claimed the successful formula of "contemporary truth" for his pictures, none gave doting collectors or wealthy patrons cause for social alarm. He falsified his subjects, who were in reality minority immigrants whose lives were often wretched struggles for survival.

Brown's street juveniles are invariably cheerful, spunky tykes-never sick, sad, emaciated, hungry or noticeably foreign. Their ragged clothing is picturesque, their grime cosmetic. They are undeniably appealing. Even the most uneven of Brown's popularized works show painterly skill and sound training.

Brown realized he was pressured by his buying public into subjects and techniques below his true ability; the pictures he painted for pleasure, using his full range of artistry, are straightforward and distinguished. Most are of country scenes and outdoor pastimes, with none of the contrived look of his commercialized "trademark" paintings.

Brown's "View of the Palisades" (1867, private collection) is a delightful and unaccustomed departure from his genre work. Showing boats on a calm, open bend of the Hudson, it is broadly painted, expansive in feeling, with crisp detail and care in every brushstroke.Brown died in 1913 in New York City.

National Academy of Design
American Water Color Society

Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Peabody institute of the City of Baltimore
G.W.V. Smith Art Gallery, Springfield, Massachusetts

Biography from Heritage Auctions:
J.G. Brown’s sentimentalized portrayals of street urchins, reproduced and published by the thousands, made him the richest and most celebrated genre painter in turn-of-the-century America. Emigrating from England to New York in 1853, Brown trained as a glassblower in Brooklyn before studying fine art at the National Academy of Design. His 1860 painting His First Cigar launched his national reputation as the “Bootblack Raphael,” and lithographers quickly began copying his images of young white shoe shiners, vendors, and servants. Although Brown claimed to paint truthfully, like a reporter, he in fact falsified the grim reality of urban immigrant life and, catering to Victorian tastes, showed his subjects not as sad, emaciated, and hungry, but as cheerful, spunky, and resourceful; their ragged clothing was meant to be picturesque, their grime, cosmetic. Brown’s paintings of street juveniles were so desirable that toward the end of his career, his yearly income averaged $40,000. Original works sold for $500 to $700, while royalties from just one lithograph totaled $25,000.

Brown was equally adept at rendering rural pastimes, pictures he painted for pleasure, and which possess a straightforward and distinguished quality over the commercial look of his shoeshine subjects. Much like his contemporaries Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, Brown romanticized country life, showing pigtailed girls in gingham dresses and boys in dungarees and straw hats waiting for the train, picking berries, pouring water at the well, or swinging on farm gates.

Brown’s paintings are featured in numerous prominent institutions, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Biography from James Graham & Sons, Est. 1857:
Born in England, J.G. Brown studied art in England and Scotland before coming to America in 1853 where he became a glassblower in Brooklyn and a student at the National Academy of Design. By the turn-of-the-century he was one of the most celebrated and commercially successful artists in the United States.

J.G. Brown was a genre painter and it was his sentimentalized portrayals of street urchins which appealed to the taste of the Victorian public. It was only during the Victorian age that “childhood” came to be seen as a special time of arcadian innocence and children were no longer viewed as being small versions of adults. It did not seem to bother the Victorians that children of the poorer classes toiled for their livelihoods on city streets, or for long hours in factories or mines. J.G. Brown’s depictions of street children showed them as happy, well fed and picturesquely attired. Even the later Ashcan School painters would show children of the lower classes in a picturesque way. Only with the advent of photographers like Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis would the unvarnished truth of the life of impoverished children be revealed. Brown’s claim that his was a formula of “contemporary truth” in painting was self deluded and the Victorian collectors were happy to go along with the fiction.

On some level, Brown felt that the collecting public had required him to paint below his ability, but, in fact, even if some find his subjects to be cloying, the paintings of street children are beautifully executed with a high degree of ability in evidence. Brown is a superb and well trained draughtsman and his portraits are extremely lifelike.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Born in Durham, England in 1831, John George Brown studied art in England and Scotland before coming to American in 1853.  He was a glassblower in Brooklyn, and a student at the National Academy of Design in New York City.

Brown exploited his considerable talent to supply the Victorian taste for his specialty - adept pictures of young white shoeshiners, vendors and servants. Brown’s street juveniles are invariably cheerful, spunky tykes, and they are undeniably appealing. Even the most uneven of Brown’s popularized works showpainterly skill and sound training.

Brown died in 1913 in New York City.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from the Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

Biography from Print Club of Albany:
John George Brown was one of the most successful genre painters of the second half of the 19th century.  His paintings of country and city children were enthusiastically collected during his lifetime, and by the time he died in 1913, he was a very wealthy man.  A methodical and conscientious worker, Brown had a total oeuvre numbering more than a thousand paintings.

Brown was born near Durham, England on November 11, 1831. While serving an apprenticeship to a glass worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne, he took evening drawing classes with William Bell Scott, an artist associated with the Pre-Raphaelites.  After further study in Edinburgh and London, Brown immigrated to the United States in 1853, settling in Brooklyn, where he found work in a glass factory. He continued his artistic studies at the Graham Art School in Brooklyn, then, in 1857, Brown enrolled in the National Academy of Design, taking antique and life classes taught by Thomas Seir Cummings (1804-1894). Wasting no time, Brown launched his long and impressive exhibition schedule when he sent two paintings to the National Academy of Design annual exhibition of 1858.  In addition to making this move from Brooklyn into the Manhattan art world, Brown increased his involvement in the Brooklyn art community, becoming a founding member in 1859 of the Brooklyn Art Social, and two years later, becoming a member of the Brooklyn Art Association.

One of the most important connections Brown made during these years was his friendship with the collector Samuel P. Avery.  Avery began to purchase Brown's work in 1858, introduced him to New York artists, and made it possible for him to take a studio in the prestigious Tenth Street Studio Building in 1860.  Brown was elected an Associate of the National Academy in 1861, and a full Academician in 1863.  He was extremely active in a number of artist organizations over the years, serving as vice-president of the Academy from 1899 to 1903, and as president of the American Watercolor Society from 1887 to 1907.

Brown's works are found in numerous museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, IL; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH; University of Wyoming Art Museum, Laramie, WY; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; as well as many important private collections.

Submitted October 2005 by James Halperin, Co-Chairman Heritage Galleries & Auctioneers, Dallas, Texas

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