Brown, John George
American (born in England), 1831–1913
Oil on canvas
15 1/8 x 12 1/8 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Gift of Virginia and George Ablah
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
John George Brown was one of America’s most capable and popular genre painters of the late 19th century. He was known especially for his perceptive portrayal of city street urchins—bootblacks, flower girls, newsboys and the like. In this charming little oil painting, executed in 1863 and titled The Beggars, the scene is a dreary street in New York. Two young and smiling street sweeps—one, a boy dressed in tattered brown trousers and jacket and the other, a girl in colorful but much over-sized hand-me-down garbs—momentarily pause from their menial chores to beg a handout from a newsboy who, reaching into his left pocket for a coin while winking at the pretty little girl at his side, gallantly obliges. His sense of self-confidence is suggested by his husky build, his sure-footed stance, and the expression of authority and worldly pride on his face and in his gestures. He is obviously a man to be reckoned with: today a hard-working and prosperous newsboy, tomorrow perhaps a tycoon. The young beggars themselves reach forward, but it is clear indeed which of the two he will choose to receive his philanthropy. In the background, to the left, lurks the shadowy figure of another boy beggar who, perhaps feeling unqualified to compete under the circumstances, walks off bewildered.
Although the anecdote depicted is amusing and strongly flavored with sentiment, there is much in this work that mirrors more fundamental aspects of American life during the second half of the 19th century. When this painting was executed, the Civil War was being waged, and advancing industrialization had already altered traditional values and was rapidly reshaping the lifestyle of the nation. Vast fortunes accompanied industrial growth, as inevitably did poverty, slums and child labor, especially in cities in the northeast. Such agitation as did exist against child labor was powerless in the face of the more widely accepted belief that labor builds character and that success is built on hard work. It is in these terms that Brown’s paintings of street urchins were assured prolonged popularity.
Brown was of course an artist, not a social commentator. Yet by depicting the child as happy, healthy and well-adjusted to the slum conditions of 19th century industrial city life, Brown like other artists who painted similar subjects created an image through which he unwittingly contributed to the reinforcement of a myth that fostered the serious evil of child labor and child deprivation. Indeed, wide acceptance of that image by Brown’s many admirers effectively illustrates one way by which the age sought and found the psychological means of blinding itself to a reality in which it was deeply enmeshed.
J.G. Brown was born in England, quite probably in Durham, in 1831. He studied at the Edinburgh Academy, but as early as 1853 he had settled in New York where he continued study at the National Academy of Design. In 1863—the same year in which he painted The Beggars—he was elected to full membership in the National Academy. Both the geometry and color of his compositions are carefully planned and in rendering the character, gestures and expressions of children he was excelled by perhaps no one. During his lifetime he exhibited frequently in major centers along the east coast. Brown died in New York in 1913.