One reason may be as old as time itself: money. Potential buyers of Three for Five may not have found an overly realistic portrayal of the plight of street children an acceptable image to display in their homes. Brown’s tidy child would have better suited their idea of “reality.”
Many street children – if they were not immigrants themselves – likely had immigrant parents, and the promise of a better life probably drew them to the United States in the first place. Images of starving, unkempt children did not fit into an idealized vision of America as a land of opportunity.
Born into a working class family, Brown had firsthand experience as an urban child laborer. The Durham, England native spent his late childhood and early adulthood as an apprentice in a glass factory in Newcastle, England and later in New York City. Like many thousands of children in mid 19th-century Europe and America, he left home to work at the height of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he once claimed “I do not paint poor boys solely because the public likes such pictures and pays me for them, but because I love the boys myself, for I, too, was once a poor lad like them.”
—Leta Woller, education–visitor engagement intern 2012-2013
Join the conversation!
Brown’s “reality” of street children may seem strange in the 21st century. Why have raw images of disaster and destitution become socially acceptable, especially in terms of art, film, photojournalism, and video games? Has our society become desensitized to subjects that used to be “off limits”?
Take a look at these works at the BMA and beyond, and join the conversation!
From the BMA's collection:
From National Geographic:
From the Chrysler Museum of Art:
From International Business Times (Canada edition):
From The New York Times: