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John George Brown (American, 1831-1913)


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.

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