Three for Five, John George Brown, 1890
Child labor was common in large urban areas in the second half of the 19th century. Parents often forced their children to work out of necessity to support the family.
Street urchins interested John George Brown and other 19th-century artists. The boy in Brown’s Three for Five tries to make a living on the streets; however, he is well groomed and clean, contradicting the viewer’s natural assumption that he is poor. Indeed, the reality of children that worked on the street was much bleaker than Brown suggested.
Realism predominated the art world across much of Europe at the time Brown painted Three for Five. Realist painters captured people and places “true to life.” Why then, when realism was at its height, did Brown gloss over one of the darker sides of society?
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.”
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!