The Bully of the Neighbourhood

John George Brown

El matón del vecindario

Brown, John George

Durham, 1831 - Nueva York, 1913

The Bully of the Neighbourhood, 1866

© Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza

Signed and dated lower right: ''J. G. Brown/N.Y.1866''
Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Oil on canvas

38,4 x 66,7 cm

CTB.1982.5

Artwork history

  • Art Market, New York, 1981.

  • Terra Museum of America Art, Evanston (IL), 1981.

  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano, 1982.

  • Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

1981

Life in 19th Century America: An Exhibition of American Genre Painting, Evanston (IL), Terra Museum of American Art, nº 32, p. 17, illus.

1983

Maestri Americani della Collezione Thyssen-Bornemisza, Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, nº 29.

1984

Maestri Americani della Collezione Thyssen-Bornemisza, Lugano, Villa Malpensata, nº 28.

1984 - 1986

American Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Baltimore (MD), The Baltimore Museum of Art; Detroit (MI), The Detroit Institute of Arts; Denver (CO), Denver Art Museum; San Antonio (TX), Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute; New York (NY), IBM Gallery of Arts and Sciences; San Diego (CA), San Diego Museum of Art; Palm Beach (FL), The Society of the Four Arts, nº 30.

1988

Mestres americans del segle XIX de la Col·lecció Thyssen-Bornemisza, Barcelona, Palau de la Virreina, nº 8, p. 40.

11988 - 1989

Bilder aus der Neuen Welt. Amerikanische Malerei des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Thyssen-Bornemisza und Museen der Vereinigten Staaten, Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz; Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich, nº 85, illus.

1996

De Canaletto a Kandinsky. Obras maestras de la Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, nº 16, p. 80.

1996 - 1997

From Zurbaran to Picasso. Masterpieces from the Collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, Shanghai, Shanghai Museum; Beijing, China National Art Gallery, p. 36.

2011 - 2012

Weltklasse. Die Düsseldorfer Malerschule. 1819-1918, Dusseldorf, Museum Kunst Palast, nº 181, p. 354, illus.

2015

Barcelona, París, New York. D´Urgell a O´Keeffe. Col.lecció Carmen Thyssen. Del 11 de julio al 18 de octubre de2015. Espai Carmen Thyssen, Sant Feliu de Guixols, p. 126.

  • -Sokol, David M.: “Life in 19th Century America”, in Life in 19th Century America. An Exhibition of American Genre Painting. [Exhib. cat.] Evanston (IL), Terra Museum of American Art, 1981, nº 32, p. 26, illus. p. 17.

  • -Novak, Barbara: Nineteenth-Century American Painting: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Ellis, Elizabeth Garrity… [et al.]. London, Sotheby´s Publications, 1986 , nº 51, p. 174, illus. [Sheet by Elizabeth Garrity Ellis].

  • -Gaehtgens, Thomas W. (ed.): Bilder aus der Neuen Welt. Amerikanische Malerei des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Thyssen-Bornemisza und Museen der Vereinigten Staaten. Adams, Willi Paul. [et al.]. [Exhib. Cat. Berlin, Nationalgalerie – Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1988-1989]. Munich, Prestel, 1988 , illus. [Sheet by Von Bismarck].

  • -Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Arnaldo, Javier (ed.). 2 vols. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2004, vol. 1, p. 294, illus. p. 295 [Sheet by Elizabeth Garrity Ellis].

  • -Hoppin, Martha: The World of J. G. Brown. Massachusetts, Chameleon Books, 2010, pp. 67, 69, 148, illus. p. 68.

  • -Barcelona, París, New York. D´Urgell a O´Keeffe. Col.lecció Carmen Thyssen. 11 July-18 October 2015. Espai Carmen Thyssen, Sant Feliu de Guixols, p. 126.

Expert report

The mixture of sentimental subject matter and high finish of Brown’s small genre scenes of city urchins reflected his conviction that beauty was morally persuasive. “A picture can and should teach”, he wrote, “can and should exert a moral influence.” He took his subjects from the streets of New York, but he cleaned their faces, idealized their forms and arranged them in narrative tableaux that he painted as a polished surface. The popularity of these images points both to the moral status of “finish” in American painting in the 1860s and to contemporary attitudes toward poverty. At a time when the immigrant children who crowded city slums and supplied cheap labour for factories were regarded with as much suspicion as sympathy, Brown’s idealised realism appealed enormously to American middle-class audiences.

Although previously unrecorded, The Bully of the Neighbourhood is typical of the anecdotal titles Brown gave his work. The children’s varied ethnic types and the compressed foreground space where they line up to confront the bully are also motifs that reappear throughout his oeuvre. This format reflected early Victorian historical genre scenes, particularly the work and teaching method of Brown’s drawing instructor at the Edinburgh Trustees’ Academy, Robert Scott Lauder, who place antique casts on casters for easy moving and grouping. It may also reflect the contemporary theatre. During the late 1850s and 1860s, lowlife “story paper” dramas were among the hits of the New York stage. With titles like Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl these plays featured idealised lower-class heroes, occasionally children, speaking high-flown language. The Bully of the Neighbourhood looks life a stage set, with a shallow proscenium, painted backdrop and front lighting. The children function as actors playing stock characters.

The theatrical quality of Brown’s art is telling, because during the 1860s several critics believed that drama most truly represented the “mixed materialistic and imaginative spirit” of the USA. The December 1860 Cosmopolitan Art Journal bemoaned American painters’ comparative lack of attention to native subject matter: “We have a certain class of subjects which are peculiar to American cities and shores-newsboys, street-sweepers, wood sawyers, immigrants, dock loafers. But singular as it may appear, few of our respectable artists have chosen this field for subjects of study. Brown turned from portraiture to painting urban children at this time and came to be regarded as one of the first to realise “the artistic possibilities of genre and lowlife in America.”

Elizabeth Garrity Ellis