Ford Madox Brown was the son of Ford Brown, a retired ship's purser, and Caroline Madox, who were married in 1818. He had one sister, Eliza Coffin, who was born in 1819. Brown's childhood was spent in Dunkirk. His mother died in September 1839, his sister in June 1840 and his father in November 1842.
Brown married Elisabeth Bromley on 3 April 1841 at Meopham Parish Church. In 1842 she gave birth to a child who died later that year. In July 1843 she gave birth to a daughter, Lucy, who was to marry William Michael Rossetti. However, Elisabeth died on 5 June 1846, aged only 27.
In 1853 Brown married his model and partner Emma Hill, whom he had met in 1848, and with whom he already had a child, Catherine Emily, born in November 1850, who was to marry the author and music critic Francis Hueffer. On 20 January 1855 their first son Oliver was born. He showed much promise as a painter and writer, but he died young in 1874.
Brown was a painter and designer. He received his artistic training in Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, and moved to Paris in 1840 where he studied in the Louvre and came under the artistic influence of Eugène Delacroix and Paul Delaroche. In 1844 he moved to London where he became friendly with William Cave Thomas and Daniel Maclise. In 1844 and 1845 all three artists entered historical designs to the competition for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament. Thomas and Maclise won prizes and received commissions, but Brown was not so successful. In 1845 he travelled to Italy where he came in contact with the German Nazarene painters. They were to significantly influence his style on his return to London.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti greatly admired the works of Brown and was taken on as his pupil for a short period in 1848. This instigated a life long friendship. Brown's work became publically identifiable with that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from this time. Like them he adopted a wet white ground in emulation of the 'Primitives' and contributed to their literary magazine The Germ. He also experimented with painting outdoors as they were doing, eg. The Pretty Baa Lambs (1852, Birmingham City Art Gallery), and likewise sought to confront modern life in paintings such as Work (1852-53, 1856-63, Manchester City Art Gallery). From 1858 to 1860 he taught draughtsmanship at F. D. Maurice's Working Men's College.
He was a founder member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861 and became particularly involved with stained glass design. His works of the 1860s became increasingly decorative and sensuous under the influence of Rossetti eg. Cordelia's Portion (1865, Lady Lever Art Gallery). Recognising the importance of photography, he circulated among friends photographs of his drawings.
In 1863 he and Rossetti urged James Leathart to buy Whistler's Wapping y035. His work, and that of Rossetti's, was linked in the press with that of Whistler in 1865 when Whistler exhibited his Asian-influenced pictures, such as Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen y060.
In 1878, through his friendship with the painter Frederick Shields and the philanthropist Charles Rowley, Brown received a commission to decorate the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall with twelve scenes from the history of Manchester.
Whistler's desire to extend the domain of his art beyond the canvas to the frame has a precedent in the abstract frame designs of Brown and Rossetti in the 1860s, these being intended to compliment the decorative nature of their canvases.
Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Surtees, Virginia (ed.), The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, New Haven and London, 1981; Hueffer, Ford Madox, Ford Madox Brown: A Record of his Life and Work, London, 1896; Rabin, Lucy, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite History Picture, New York, 1978; Newman, T. and R. Watkinson, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle, London, 1991; Bendiner, Kenneth, The Art of Ford Madox Brown, Pennsylvania, 1998; The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy.