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John Brown, 1749–1787, British

The Geographers

Additional Title(s):

Verso: Seated Man Reading a Book

Pen and gray ink, pen and black ink, gray wash and graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 7 1/8 x 10 1/8 inches (18.1 x 25.7 cm)

Inscribed in artist's hand in graphite center right: "John Brown Romae"; in graphite upper right: "6[...]"

Signed in graphite, center right: "John Brown Romae"; signed on back in graphite center right: "J Brown del"; not dated

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
book | chair | genre subject | geographers | geography | globe | map | men | table
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The subject of this enigmatic and atmospheric drawing has never been identified; it was untitled by the artist, and “The Geographers” is a later appellation. The composition is indeed dominated by the shadow of the globe looming menacingly over the foreground, but the volume over which the young men pore so intently is depicted as a tabula rasa rather than a map or travel book, and the spaces being charted are more likely those of the dark recesses of the imagination than actual geographical sites. Originally a sheet in one of Brown’s Roman sketchbooks, the drawing suggests something of the intense intellectual climate he experienced there and reflects the preoccupation with supernatural and uncanny themes explored by Henry Fuseli and his circle. The drawing also demonstrates Brown’s fascination with physiognomy, a theoretical system dating back to the Renaissance and based on the premise that facial expressions were an index to human personality. Brown may have become interested in the subject through his association with Fuseli, who made several drawings for Johann Kasper Lavater’s influential treatise “Essays on Physiognomy, Calculated to Extend the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind”. The young man seated nearest the viewer in Brown's drawing has a classical profile—in physiognomonic terms, indicative of nobility of character— whereas the hooked noses and scowling expressions of the standing men hint at their villainous nature. Brown, who made numerous drawings of heads, was described by the amateur artist and connoisseur William Young Ottley as having “a peculiar talent in delineating the human physiognomy which he prosecuted with utmost diligence and perseverance, frequently following a remarkable character day after day until he completely succeeded in obtaining his resemblance and character” (Ottley, 1814, lot 1621). “The Geographers” has a distinguished provenance; it belonged to Ottley, who studied briefly with Brown and purchased the contents of the artist’s studio after his death, and was subsequently owned by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 268, no. 56, pl. 56, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

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