Lisa N. Peters
Shown in the prime spot in an oversized illustration in the Times’ “Friday Listings” (December 4, 2009, C24), J. G. (John George) Brown’s Card Trick (1880-89, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha) was chosen to represent the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 24, 2010. The show includes the works of iconic figures in American art history such as Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent. Brown’s place in this illustrious company, and the selection of his painting for the Times, suggests that the time is right to consider the relevance of his art within the context of his era. Times art critic Roberta Smith’s comment, “It’s a thrilling, illuminating show,” used in the caption, suggests the way that this exhibition allows such new perspectives.
Many works by Brown have come through the gallery over the years, such as those pictured here. Born in Bensham, England (absorbed into Newcastle-on-Tyne in the city of Durham), John George Brown grew up in a working-class family and began his career in the glass-cutting trade, while studying art in the evenings; one of his teachers was William Bell Scott, a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites. After immigrating to the United States in 1853, Brown continued his training under the miniature painter Thomas Seir Cummings and moved in 1860 to the famed Tenth Street Studio Building. Seeking to express “contemporaneous truth, which will be of interest to posterity,” he turned to the portrayal of the young button sellers, crossing sweepers, flower vendors, street musicians, and shoe shiners whose presence on the streets of New York was pronounced. The works of Caravaggio and Murillo provided him with inspiration for scenes of contemporary life rendered in a warm amber and russet chiaroscuro. Showing figures dressed in tattered clothing who are nonetheless well scrubbed, Brown expressed the idea that the native intelligence and adaptability of his subjects would allow them to take their place in the affairs of the world.
By about 1910 Brown had stopped painting street boys. The reason: the city cracked down and imposed penalties on the enterprising street youths, sending them to school when compulsory public education laws went into effect. On November 17, 1912, the New York Times spoke to Brown in an article on this phenomenon entitled “The Street Gamin Has Vanished from New York.” Commenting that the children who had roamed the city were now “under the padrone system, and are simply so many little slaves to some old Greek mendicant [presumably his reference to a school teacher],” Brown lamented the end of a way of life and of models for his paintings. He stated:
“Why, you should have seen the little rascals who came up here to pose for me. They were as independent as Julius Caesar. They were plying an honest trade, and they were proud of it, and it didn’t matter to them that their business kept them on the streets all day and most of the night. They grew up in it; they loved it, from the start. They were on the street, but they were there with their wits, to take a living away from New York by their ingenuity, and their pluck, and their honest hard work. “
The reporter noted and concluded:
It is impossible to escape a feeling of very genuine sadness at the loss of the “street arab.” He typified more than the mere joy of vagabondage. He has figured more than once at the small end of a millionaire’s biography, and he has held his high place among the enrolled heroes for adventurous street rescues, and the like. He has been a living demonstration to the world that lack of family, home, money, clothes, and food is not necessarily a bar to heath or happiness. For making the most of nothing at all, and keeping optimistic the while, he has had no peers. . . . Cheerfulness was his watchword: worry his abomination. He would sooner be run over by a horse car than permit himself to have ‘nerves.’
Brown’s images of such self-sufficient, independent youths fulfilled the vision of the American dream, a quality that made these paintings popular, especially among businessmen who saw their own ascendancy in this romantic light. Despite charges of sentimentality, there were clearly truths in Brown’s images as to realities of New York life and to the values and beliefs of the age in which they were created.
In a follow up post, I will consider how some paintings at Spanierman Gallery reflect themes considered in American Stories. (See the exhibition’s own blog.)