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Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) was a British painter who was famous for depicting historical subjects while imbuing his works with moral undertones. His paintings featured a distinctive graphic style that distinguished him from other 19th century artists.
Brown was a prolific painter who did several masterpieces ranging from landscape to portraits to religious and civic paintings. Learn more about his life and career in this extensive biography.
Ford Madox Brown was born in Calais, which was part of the French Kingdom. He was the son of Ford Brown who was a purser in the British Royal navy. Brown did not get a formal education, though he demonstrated artistic talent from an early age by copying works by the masters. This interest informed his father’s decision to move the family to Bruges so that he could enjoy the tutelage of Albert Gregorius. Brown first married Elizabeth Bromley in 1846, but the marriage was short-lived as Elizabeth died in 1846 leaving behind a young girl. He later married his mistress and model Emma Hill in 1856. The couple raised two daughters, Catherine and Lucy, to adulthood.
Brown got his apprenticeship at art academies in Belgium where he traversed the cities of Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp in search of skills and inspiration. It was while in Belgium that he learnt to do historical paintings and portraits by complying with the rigorous artistic methods taught by academies. During his tour of Europe, he got acquainted with European painting styles and norms, which profoundly influenced his early works and subject choices.
Ford Madox Brown was an avid reader of English literature and dedicated a significant portion of his artworks to the characters and scenes he encountered in Shakespeare and other literary works. In particular, he was fond of King Lear and did several works based on this play such as Romeo and Juliet, which depicts the two lovers frolicking on the balcony.
Brown was a prolific landscape painter and had the uncanny ability to capture different shades of sunlight and varying weather conditions while doing open air paintings. His landscape collection includes early works such as The Pretty Baa-Lambs as well as more accomplished masterpieces such as Carrying Corn in which he defied convention by vividly reproducing natural features and lighting. He also experimented with novel formats and scales as is the case in An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead.
Brown had deep social awareness and used his keen observation skills to create detailed representations of life in the Victorian period. His works feature fine details, varying light shades, bright colours, and unique compositions. Some of the famous masterpieces on this subject include The Last of England and the universally acclaimed Work painting which epitomizes his dedication to vigorous originality. Work depicts all classes of workers from farm laborers to Dukes deeply engrossed in their daily chores during the Victorian era. Brown did several paintings that showcased his polished storytelling skills. Even though he was not very pious, he was fond of religious stories and teachings and portrayed several scenes from the bible. The most famous painting from this category is Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, which he did in 1852.
Brown completed several portraits though most of them were private works that did not attract commissions. His favourite subjects included paintings of his friends and family. Brown made portraits of himself and his family in paintings that portrayed family members with deep affection and attachment. He often applied the same model he used for the portraits to his other paintings. Some of his best works in this category include a portrait of William Michael Rossetti shining in the glare of lamplight and The Irish Girl.
Local and Foreign Travels
Ford Madox Brown travelled widely across Europe in 1845 and 1846. It was while going to Rome through Basel and Florence that he encountered paintings that changed his style. He was fascinated by the works of Italian Renaissance painters, Holbein and the Nazarene group from Germany. This experience informed the decision to shift from dark and shady paintings to bright and highly illuminated works. Brown retained his love for literary and historical topics, but the subsequent paintings were realistic and done in open air light. Some of the paintings from this time include James Bamford whose design is similar to Holbein and Oure Ladye of Saturday Night, which follows Italian traditions. It was his foundational work that formed the basis for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed in 1848.
Ford Madox Brown had a deep interest in civic art and did several paintings on the subject. His most famous work of this category is the Manchester Town Hall murals. The project was initially undertaken by Frederic Shields, but the city council later commissioned Brown to complete all the 12 murals in 1878. After winning the contract, Brown moved from London to Manchester in 1881 and lived in the northern city for 6 years. He did extensive studies of the historical events depicted in the paintings and even attached original notes and sketches. His other works from the Manchester visit include a collection of decorative paintings displayed during the Royal Manchester Jubilee exhibition for 1887 and a portrait of Madeline Scott.
Passion for Pre-Renaissance Styles
The major influences on Brown's work were Dutch and Flemish painters who he admired for their realism and sincerity in art. He was especially enthralled by pre-Renaissance art by Italian artists such as Fra Angelico and Giotto whose frescos and altarpieces adorned many cathedrals. The desire to depict the mundane is evident in Work where hawkers and farm labourers mingle with noblemen overseeing civil works. It is also clear that Holbein, whose work Brown found in Basel had a major influence on his portraits.
Association with the Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites sought to return art to the pre-Renaissance era where painters produced authentic and natural works capturing both the profane and the mundane aspects of natural phenomena. This was in part a protest to the idealisation of historical and religious figures art by artists associated with the Royal Academy of Arts. However, he defied their romanticisation of the past in favour of depictions of daily life in Victorian Britain. Even though Brown was not part of the movement, he influenced its founders with his realistic and intense use of natural light and colour.
In particular, Brown made a lasting impression on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was so absorbed by his realistic style that he founded the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti personally sought Brown’s mentorship while his landscape paintings were very consistent with the realist philosophy. Indeed, art critic John Ruskin noted that Rossetti’s paintings captured every aspect of the landscape, including variations in shade. A glowing tribute to the influence Ford Madox Brown had on the movement.