When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.
[“The Gang,” 1894]
Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.
With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.
[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]
He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.
This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.
The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.
[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]
As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.
This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.
What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.
[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]
And despite the work of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.
Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.
An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.
[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]