Brown, John George – American Artist

John George Brown (American, 1831-1913)

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 emigrated 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, and, in 1857, enrolled in the National Academy of Design, taking antique and life classes taught by Thomas Seir Cummings (1804 to 1894).

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 artists’ 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, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio; University of Wyoming Art Museum, Laramie, Wyoming; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; as well as many important private collections.

Information courtesy of Charlton Hall Auctions

John George Brown was born in Durham, England, and was apprenticed by his parents, at age fourteen, to a glass worker in Newcastle-on-Tyne. He showed an early interest in art, studying at evening classes offered by the local School of Design, where his teacher was William Bell Scott, a muralist who was a friend of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When Brown completed his apprenticeship, he moved to Edinburgh and worked as a glass painter, studying fine art after his workday was over with Robert Scott Lauder at the Trustees Academy. In 1853, Brown won a prize for outstanding work in the antique class, a rare honor for an evening student. In that same year he moved to London, where he again worked as a glass decorator. After three months in London, he sailed for America.

Brown arrived in New York without money or connections, but found ready employment at the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works. He flourished there, attracting the notice of his employer, William Owen. Again, he attended evening classes, now exercising his pencil and brush at the Graham Art School in Brooklyn. Brown attracted the notice of another Owen, Mary, William’s daughter, whom he married in 1855. In that year he also listed himself as a portrait painter in the Brooklyn City Directory. In 1857-58 Brown studied at the National Academy of Design under Thomas Seir Cummings.

J. G. Brown enjoyed a long and successful career as a genre artist. He established his first studio in Brooklyn, but in 1861 took a space at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village, which he kept until his death in 1913. This location placed him physically at the epicenter of American art activity, although Brown, in fact, very much pursued his own path and can best be understood in the context of nineteenth-century British painting, especially in its genre and Pre-Raphaelite modes. Brown was active in numerous art organizations and was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1861 and a full academician in 1863.

Brown is remembered today primarily for his depictions of well-scrubbed urban street urchins–especially newsboys and bootblacks. While he painted many of these during the late 1870s and thereafter, earning himself the sobriquet “The Bootblack Raphael” along the way, in fact this was only one facet of his work. In the 1860s and 1870s, Brown, who had a longstanding interest in landscape painting, painted a series of images of children and young women in woodland settings. (For a comprehensive, illustrated discussion of Brown’s career, see Martha J. Hoppin, Country Paths and City Sidewalks: The Art of J. G. Brown, exhib. cat. Springfield, Massachusetts: George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 1989.) These idyllic images found a popular audience, with six of them issued as chromolithographs by Louis Prang and Company between 1868 and 1870. In all, Brown was one of the most popular and successful genre painters of his day.

Information courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers, May 2014.

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