Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp 32-34. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains images and provenances of the paintings and exhibition schedules. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
John George Brown, 1831-1913
The Berry Boy, around 1877
(Oil on canvas, 23 x 15 inches, Signed lower left: J.G. Brown. N.A., George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 1.23.13)
Crossing the Brook, 1874
(Oil on canvas, 23 x 15 inches, Signed lower left: J.G. Brown. N.A./ 1874, George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 1.23.16)
by Martha Hoppin
J. G. Brown began his highly successful career as a genre painter about 1860. Within a few years he had found his niche specializing in often humorous narratives of children at play, or paintings of a "juvenile and sportive kind," as critic Henry Tuckerman characterized them in his 1867 landmark history of American art. Depictions of children by Brown and other artists were especially popular after the Civil War with a public for whom children symbolized the country's lost innocence and its future hope. Created in this climate of nostalgia, The Berry Boy and Crossing the Brook envision a golden world of carefree childhood in the country.
The Berry Boy captures the quintessential country boy. Fresh-faced and smiling, the sturdy youth confidently climbs over a stone wall on which he has rested his bucket full of red berries. His white shirt, suspenders, and rumpled hat must surely accompany rolled up pants and bare feet, the country costume favored by Brown and other painters of his time. The boy radiates abundant health and high spirits in the bright sunshine that completes the idyllic scene. Brown depicted other such boys in his outdoor scenes of the 1870s, helping to popularize a type created by earlier genre painters. Probably Eastman Johnson most clearly defined the country boy's image in his 1860 painting, The Barefoot Boy (private collection), itself an interpretation of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem praising the "barefoot boy, with cheek of tan." Johnson's composition had wide circulation as a chromolithographed reproduction by Louis Prang. Along with Johnson, in the 1870s Winslow Homer painted numerous country boys wearing similar garb playing in pastures, sailing boats, or picking berries. Snap the Whip (The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio), of 1872, contains probably the best known collection of Homer's country boys. Mark Twain created their literary equivalent, Tom Sawyer, in 1876. In prose and paint the country boy expressed self-reliance, love of adventure, and harmony with nature.
Influenced by both Johnson and Homer in his choice of subject, Brown nevertheless developed his own interpretation and style. He emphasized narrative and anecdotal detail. He modeled his forms more sculpturally and used tighter brushwork. He also preferred to paint sunlight filtering through forest foliage or striking the edges of selected forms, as here, where strong light along the boy's contour provides a dramatic outline and leaves his interior figure in shade. In The Berry Boy, Brown used this pattern of light to accentuate the triangle formed by the figure's arms and the stone ledge, thus heightening the clear geometric underpinning of the composition.
Crossing the Brook is Brown's ode to the country girl. In fact, unlike Johnson and Homer, Brown painted country girls more frequently than boys, possibly because he wanted to distinguish his work from theirs and develop his own place in the genre painting market. While Brown placed his boys and girls in the same sunny outdoors, he characterized them differently according to contemporary views of their differing social roles. Crossing the Brook and The Berry Boy form a complementary, though presumably unintended, pair of paintings, the one an image of active, masculine boyhood, the other of passive, feminine girlhood.
In Crossing the Brook Brown emphasized the richness and beauty of nature, conveyed especially by his dazzling rendering of the water's reflections; the lush summer landscape envelops and protects the young girl. The composition is fluidly constructed around a winding brook, an irregular jumble of stones, and a dense, lacy screen of foliage across the background. Vivid color, profuse greenery, rounded rocks, and curved forms contrast to The Berry Boy's restricted color scheme (mostly grays and browns), uncluttered background, rectilinear stones, and strong, even stark, geometric design. While the berry boy's pose is open and active, the young girl steps quietly from stone to stone as she crosses the shallow stream, her arms contained against her body. She turns away from the viewer, glancing to her side; the boy confronts the viewer directly. Such contrasts between girls and boys characterize most of Brown's country scenes. In numerous paintings girls sit or stand and hold a variety of objects, including dolls, baskets, parasols, or hats, as in Crossing the Brook. Boys, on the other hand, climb fences, chop wood, play on rafts, or fish. Rather than jump on a wall, the girls quietly hold their berry pails. When boys and girls play together, the boys usually act, and the girls help, or are helped by, the boys. When girls in Brown's paintings take a more active role, they cross a stream or swing on a gate. He did paint a scene of three girls swinging with unusual abandon; to this work he gave the title The Three Tomboys (private collection).
Brown and George Walter Vincent Smith maintained a long
friendship, one that began most likely in the early 1860s when Smith was
first living in New York and Brown was just starting his career. By 1867
Smith had bought four Brown paintings. By the time of his last purchase,
in 1922, he had owned 15. Brown
sent Smith photographs of his works inscribed "To my friend,"
and in 1891 he wrote Smith about his purchase of six paintings, including
Crossing the Brook. "I would rather not send a bill," the
artist explained, "as I would not like it ever to be known I sold them
at the price, as 1 do not think any other man could have got them,
for we have very few men who have taken the interest in our native art that you have." Smith may have bought The Berry Boy, as well as Crossing the Brook, directly from the artist in 1891.
Crossing the Brook, dated 1874, most likely preceded The Berry Boy, which may date from about 1877. Brown painted a second version of Crossing the Brook in 1875 (private collection). Nearly identical to the first painting, the later one is more carefully detailed and finished in execution. The fresh, almost sketchy handling of the Springfield work suggests it may have been a study which Brown kept in his studio until selling it to Smith in 1891. Brown also made a watercolor version of the same composition in 1877.
Brown painted both Crossing the Brook and The Berry Boy at the height of his career in the 1870s, during a period of intense American idealization of country childhood. At the same time, however, he was developing a very different image of childhood in his depictions of city bootblacks, street musicians, flower sellers, crossing sweepers, and newsboys. After 1880 he rarely painted the country child and instead became widely known for his representation of the city urchin.
1. Henry Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (New York: G.P. Putnam & Son, 1867), p. 487.
2. For a full discussion of country boy imagery, see Sarah Burns, "Barefoot Boys and Other Country Children: Sentiment and Ideology in Nineteenth-Century American Art," The American Art Journal, vol. XX, no. 1, 1988, pp. 24-50.
3. Records in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum archives indicate that Smith bought the following paintings by Brown, sold a number of them (marked "sold"), and retained others for his museum (those marked with *). Smith sold Giving the But (or Butt), listed below, to a Springfield collector who later gave it to the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. Smith bought Courtship, also listed below, in 1922 from the estate of Springfield collector James Abbe.
4. Six signed and inscribed photographs of works dated 1879 and 1880 are in the G.W.V. Smith Art Museum archives, as is the letter from Brown dated June 16, 1891.
5. Smith's receipt for the purchase of six paintings is dated March 12, 1891, and marked paid in full on Sept. 3, 1891 (George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum archives). Although Brown listed Crossing the Brook by title, two other paintings on the list, Boiceville and Pine Hill, cannot be identified today. These may have been simply descriptive titles, since Brown summered in these locations in the mid 1870s. One of them may be the painting now known as The Berry Boy. No existing records document Smith's purchase of a work titled The Berry Boy, while the other six paintings remaining is his collection today can be documented, and records exist for the purchase of at least nine other Brown paintings (see note 3).
6. The version of 1875, which measures 22 x 15 inches, may have been the painting Brown sent to the Artists' Fund Society annual exhibition in January 1875 ("Artists' Fund Exhibition," The Arcadian, vol. III, no. 19, Jan. 21, 1875, p. 4.) The slightly larger watercolor (21 5/8 x 16 1/8 inches) was shown at the annual American Watercolor Society exhibition in February 1877 ("The Water-Color Exhibition," Boston Daily Evening Transcript, Feb. 23, 1877, p. 5; reproduced in Christie's sales catalogue, Sept. 28, 1989, no. 41).
About the author
At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the the Springfield Library and Museums Association in Resource Library Magazine.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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