“The Boot-Black Raphael:” John George Brown

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John George Brown
John George Brown

Study Hour, by John George Brown

Though born in England, John George Brown (1831-1913) hopped the Atlantic stateside by his early twenties, settling down in Brooklyn, New York – a city whose scenes would inspire the works that made him one of the most successful painters of the 19th century.

Like a romanticized and Americanized version of the Oliver Twist story, Brown became known for his depictions of street urchins, who cheerfully sold newspapers and shined shoes in spite of the gravity of their situation. Brown’s entrepreneurial children had happy demeanors, with just a little bit of dirt carefully placed on their otherwise well-kept exteriors for effect. Although they were working for mere cents and were most likely cast-off orphans known as waifs or members of poverty-stricken, working class families who needed the extra income, Brown’s dynamic portraits of these street workers didn’t seek to comment upon that solemn reality. A true businessman, Brown knew that his well-to-do patrons didn’t want to be reminded of the problematic social conditions of his time – that they needed art as a form of escapism to the world around them. It was these works that earned Brown the nickname the “Boot Black Raphael,” as his skilled composition and execution made him worthy of being likened to the famous Renaissance painter.

Growing up in a poor family in Durham, John George Brown’s own beginnings were not far from those of the children who would ultimately make him so prosperous. In spite of his circumstances, he was afforded the opportunity to take on an apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne with a glasscutter, and then again later at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh under the historical painter Robert Scott Lauder. Upon moving to America, he studied at the National Academy of Design, now known as the National Academy Museum and School , while painting portraits in his studio that sold anywhere from $5 to $30. “The First Cigar” was his first piece to garner attention, and showed a gaggle of street boys with khaki pants torn at the knees, gathered around a streetlamp smoking cigars. This work went for $150, and is the painting that launched his career as an iconic and profitable 19th century artist.


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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