John George Brown: Painting Utopian Escapism During the American Civil War

KatherineAmerican Paintings, Artist SpotlightLeave a Comment

Artist John George Brown
John George Brown

Artist John George Brown

The world utopia comes from the combination of two Greek words – ou (not) and topos (place). This renders the word to literally mean not a real place or nowhere.

John George Brown’s paintings depicted such a place. Paintings of street children of New York City depicted as nothing more than scruffy carefree rascals were Brown’s specialty. He was hailed as being able to capture character and masterfully arranged group portraits.

John George Brown was born in 1831 in England. At fourteen he apprenticed with a glass-cutter while spending his evenings studying at the School of Design with William Bell Scott. At age 25, he immigrated to New York City and found work at the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company. Brown continued his studies at Graham Art School and eventually came to study under Thomas Seir Cumming, a miniature painter, at the National Academy of Design.

William Owen, one of the owners at the glass company, was impressed with Brown’s work and provided financial backing for Brown’s art and encouraged his talents. Later, in 1859, Brown became a founding member of the Brooklyn Art Society and the Brooklyn Art Association in 1861.

John G. Brown - "Sympathy" at Ackerman's Fine Art

John G. Brown – “Sympathy” at Ackerman’s Fine Art

As with some of his contemporaries like Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, Brown presented the world with a vision of 19th century America that was considerably more polished and carefree than the reality. The height of his career was in the 1860s, a decade marred by the American Civil War. The Civil War ravished a young nation and threatened its fall.  Brown’s idealized paintings of happy children were the kind of escapism a country in crisis needed. The paintings easily charmed the public, who were eager to forget their worries and muse on a more romantic image of their nation. Lithographs of his work were fast selling items, which Brown had the foresight to copyright early on.

Brown’s works depict a world of eternal optimism and hope for urban America. Among the greatest of the genre painters, Brown presented narrative scenes that show a pre-Raphaelite influence. The subjects, while idealized, appear vivid and natural, showing Brown’s great ability at capturing human expressions.


Kenny Ackerman is an Art Dealer in New York, specializing in Fine Art Paintings from 19th-21st century Europe and America. To buy or sell original paintings by artists we represent, contact Ackerman’s Fine Art here.

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