Born in 1831 in Durham, England, John George Brown earned a reputation as one of the most successful genre painters of the 19th century. Though his family was poor, he apprenticed in Newcastle-on-Tyne as a glasscutter, and at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh under Robert Scott Lauder. In 1853, Brown immigrated to the United States where he settled in New York City’s Brooklyn. While continuing his craft at Flint Glass Works, he studied art at the National Academy of Design. His iconic painting His First Cigar gained him instant fame which he enjoyed for the remainder of his career. He was elected as an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1862, receiving full Academician honors in 1863. He served as president of the American Watercolor Society from 1887-1905.
Influenced by Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer in his subject choice, his early paintings were mainly genre scenes of country children at play. This imagery was especially popular in a post-Civil War America where hope was found in carefree childhood innocence. His later works earned him the nickname “the Boot-Black Raphael,” as Brown’s subjects were often the homeless street urchins who earned a pittance by shining shoes or selling newspapers. However, John George Brown was a wise enough business man to know that his affluent patrons didn’t want to be reminded of the current societal problems and exploitations. With that in mind, he depicted these working children as happy and cheerful with a bit of grunge for cosmetics. The reality was much grimmer. Nonetheless, one cannot deny the narrative quality and visual appeal of these skillfully painted scenes.
Today John George Brown’s artwork can be found in important institutions such as the Corcoran Art Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He died in New York in 1913.