This painting, based on a Mathew Brady photograph, draws inspiration from 18th-century British “conversation pieces”—informal images of families engaged in everyday activities. James Brown (1791–1877), a partner in the Brown Brothers & Co. banking firm, is depicted with his wife, Eliza, and their grandson William in their New York City mansion. Embodying traditional Victorian gender roles, James holds a newspaper that connects him with the outside world, while Eliza’s knitting represents the domestic life of the home.
The Brown family’s Renaissance Revival–style parlor, designed by the Frenchman Louis Marcotte in 1846, exemplifies the luxurious lifestyles of many Gilded Age capitalists, and prompted criticism that the painting was as much a portrait of material possessions as of people. However, this image of wealth, social status, and taste is balanced by the touching scene of two grandparents indulging the interruption of their grandson.