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John George Brown - Hiding in the Old Oak


John George Brown (1831-1913), British-American
Hiding in the Old Oak, 1873-74 OIL ON CANVAS, 30 x 25 1/8 inches
Gift of Horace Fairbanks

J. G. Brown, as the artist is commonly known, enjoyed a long and successful career as a painter of childhood scenes. Born to a poor family in northern England, Brown enjoyed painting idyllic portraits of rural and working-class children, subjects with whom he felt personal kinship. He imbued his subjects with hope, optimism, and plucky spirit, trails that garnered a ready and enthusiastic audience in America.

Begun in the same year that Brown turned his primary attention from rural to urban scenes, Hiding in the Old Oak distills the aspects of rural childhood that were the artist's early trademarks and that justify the painting's reputation among the most popular com­positions in the Athenaeum’s collection to the present day. Three girls, dressed in white or brightly-colored dresses and aprons have chosen the womb-like hollow of an ancient tree as their hiding place in a game of hide-and-go-seek. The leftmost figure leans back against the tree's trunk, mimicking its diagonal with her body, as she restrains her dress with her right hand to prevent it from fluttering in the breeze and giving them away. Nature, in this view, is a benevolent, protective presence in the world, aligned with the innocence of youth. An angular, skeletal branch at the composition's upper right sounds the only cautionary note of mortality.

Decades later, Brown reported to Mrs. Fairbanks that he began this composition dur­ing the summer of 1873 while in the town of Boiceville, in upstate New York. Like his land­scape painter colleagues, Brown would usually travel outside of New York City during the summer in search of subjects in the rural landscape, then return to the city for the winter months to work up his studies into final compositions in the studio and exhibit the best of them in the National Academy of Design's annual exhibitions in the early spring. Accord­ing to the artist, Fairbanks bought this painting directly from the Academy's annual exhi­bition in 1874.