Harmon’s Histories: Street urchin artist lamented clean city streets, universal education
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
“Cleaner streets and compulsory education” are to blame!
The number of street urchins were getting “scarcer every year” and the president of the American Water Color Society, John George Brown, was very concerned that he couldn’t “find any more ragged boys to paint.”
The Washington, D.C., Star newspaper quoted Brown in its December 17, 1898 issue lamenting, “The urchins of dirt and tatters who used to be so plentiful are hard to find nowadays.”
J.G. Brown knew poverty firsthand. The son of an “impoverished lawyer,” was born in 1831, and by age 14 had begun a “seven-year apprenticeship as a glass-cutter in Newcastle-on-Tyne, studying at night with William Bell Scott at the School of Design.”
Brown emigrated to America in 1853, at age 22.
“He settled in Brooklyn finding work at the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company where he impressed one of the company's owners, William Owen, with his ability. During this time, he attended the free classes offered at the Graham Art School and later studied under Thomas Seir Cummings at the National Academy of Design. In 1855, Brown married Owen's daughter and with his father-in-law's financial backing was able to open a studio as a portrait painter.”
"He moved to New York in 1861, finding quarters in the Tenth Street Studio Building where he maintained a studio for the rest of his life.”
“After turning to genre scenes of the street children of New York City in the 1860s, he soon became famous and wealthy. Brown copyrighted many of his paintings that were often reproduced commercially as chromolithographs or photographic reproductions.”
“In 1857, enlightened entrepreneur James Boorman Johnston hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a workspace specifically for artists, some that included living quarters,”
Brown, for nearly 40 years, lived and worked at New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building, which had been designed specifically for artists. Individual studios surrounded a “communal gallery space” lighted by a domed skylight.
The “ragged and tattered urchins” all knew about Brown’s studio. They could make a dollar a day by sitting for the artist.
In the 1880s, said Brown, “I would have a line waiting for me at the door (when I arrived).” By the late 1890s, hardly a single model could be found.
Although he admired the work of George E. Waring Jr., an advocate of proper New York sewer systems, he also blamed him in part.
“The town is too clean and the boys all go to school. He (Waring) and the new school laws, the charitable institutions, the boys clubs, the kindergartens and that sort of thing have done it.”
“Mind you, I am not against such things, far from it. I’m a father and a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. I am speaking solely from the view of a painter of street boys. I admired Colonel Waring greatly, but he certainly did play bob with my models. Without dirty streets, dirty street boys are hard to find.”
Brown’s all-time favorite urchins were Irish-American boys, “who would just as soon fight as eat – happy-go-lucky chaps.” The best, he said, came from Hell’s Kitchen where there were “shanties, then rookeries, now tenements.” It was a place where the “streets were the boy’s playgrounds.”
But Brown said not a single boy he drew was ever dishonest. In fact, one of his boys named “Barney” (he never knew his subjects’ last names) would watch his studio while he was out shopping.
Barney would answer visitors’ questions and take notes on their requests, all the time praising the artist’s work.
Another urchin, a 10-year-old, showed up one day with his sister in tow. “Why so early?” asked Brown. “Me mother’s dead. Died last night, an’ we ain’t got no money.” Brown asked if he could help by giving some money to their father? “Nope,” said the urchin, “Give it to me sister.”
Brown concluded, “It doesn’t require a mind reader to know what kind of father that boy had.”
The beloved street-urchin artist lived a long life, given the times. He died at 82, of pneumonia, in New York City on February 8, 1913.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.