September 20, 2008 - January 4, 2009

Children in American Art

By Janice Driesbach


While often best known for their outstanding depictions of America's political and social leaders, many of our country's finest artists -- including John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Mary Stevenson Cassatt -- also created engaging representations of youth, as shared in Children in American Art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Fifty paintings dating from 1670 through World War II allow for the appreciation of both the talents of artists working in the United States and for insights into how both our culture and dominant artistic styles have evolved over time.

A rare 17th-century portrait of Robert Gibbs at 4-1/2 Years is characteristic of its time in depicting its young subject as a miniature adult, standing with one hand on his hip and the other holding gloves. While the young boy is shown in embellished attire with puffed sleeves, this painting by an artist known only as the Freake-Gibbs Painter also reflects the austerity valued at the time in its plain background and muted tones.

Mary and Elizabeth Royall, painted almost a century later, demonstrates why John Singleton Copley had become Boston's most celebrated painter by the age of 25. In an era when patrons were most interested in acquiring portraits, Copley excelled in depicting the luxurious garments of his subjects, which served as indicators of their wealth and social status. This vibrant portrait, unusual in showing two teenaged girls, reflects Copley's familiarity with British precedents (through the study of books and prints imported from England) in its rich velvet drape and depiction of the King Charles spaniel, a favorite pet of British royalty.

By the early 19th century, artists responded to the new view of children as creatures of nature and inherently good in their representations. Inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who graduated from Yale and studied in England in pursuit of a career in art, reflects this attitude in his Little Miss Hone of 1824. The young subject spooning milk to the obedient kitten on her lap exudes charm while aspiring to her future role as a mother.

By the mid-1800s, as large numbers of Americans began to settle in the West, social and economic opportunities expanded and -- for the first time -- formal portraits of children showed them in natural settings. In addition, genre painting -- showing everyday people engaged in their activities -- gained new prominence as artists and patrons evinced interest in creating a national art addressing the American experience. Thomas Birch's depiction of boys skating and James Clonney's composition featuring a boy harnessing a dog to a sled for a young girl (most likely his sister) reflect a new appreciation for the benefits of the outdoors as well as contemporary attitudes toward gender.

With the disruptions caused by onset of the Civil War in 1861 artists turned away from the sentimental representations of children toward more serious compositions. Eastman Johnson's poignant painting Writing to Father of 1863 shows a young boy wearing a gray cadet's uniform who is struggling with a letter to his father, who is away at war. The concentration he gives his task speaks to the new responsibilities that fell to soldiers' families. It also offers visual reassurance of America's youth as its future leaders.

Winslow Homer turned to optimistic portrayals of children in the following decade, as documented by his Boys in a Pasture of 1874. These barefoot children are shown at ease in a lush meadow (most likely in upstate New York) at a time when America was becoming increasingly industrialized. In representing a generation of healthy farm children, they would have been understood as emblems of America's nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time and of its hope for the future.

In contrast, John George Brown looked to poor urban children for his subjects. As industries attracted masses of struggling immigrants from both rural communities and foreign lands to America's growing cities, children were put to work in both factories and on street corners. In his representations, such as Tuckered Out-The Shoeshine Boy -- Brown typically showed youth in worn clothing, but apparently healthy -- allowing his affluent patrons to overlook the harsh conditions they perpetuated.

By the end of the 19th century, America's finest artists were turning their attention to the privileged families who supported them and symbolized the "national well being." In Ellen Mary in a White Coat, Mary Cassatt shows her niece in a luxurious hat and coat that attest to her family's wealth. Calm Morning by Frank Weston Benson, who was also influenced by French Impressionism, shows his three youngest children at leisure, most likely at their summer home in Penobscot Bay, Maine. And, six-year-old Helen Sears, shown by John Singer Sargent in 1895 in an elegant white dress and shoes alongside a sumptuous floral array, was the daughter of Sarah Chaote Sears, an accomplished photographer, painter, and art patron.

The most recent paintings in Children in American Art offer subjects the artist has treated in depth or children as part of the larger social fabric. Robert Henri, the leading artist of the American "Ashcan School" became enamored of the children he saw on remote Achill Island in Ireland, and used them as models for a series of paintings, such as Irish Girl (Mary O'Donnel) of 1913. Milton Avery's fascination with his daughter March inspired him to paint her again and again, documenting her development while he also explored new painting styles. And, Allan Rohan Crite depicted lively children on an urban street as part of his ongoing interest in showing "just ordinary people as I see them."

Children in American Art was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The Dayton Art Institute installation, which also features three paintings on loan from the Butler Institute of Fine Arts in Youngstown, Ohio, and Cecilia Beaux's The Velie Boys from our collection, is presented by Premier Health Partners.

About the author

Janice Driesbach is Director and CEO of the The Dayton Art Institute


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 27, 2008, with permission of the Dayton Art Institute, which was provided to Resource Library in a press kit. The text pertains to a special exhibition, Children in American Art, on view September 20, 2008 to January 4, 2009, at the Dayton Art Institute.

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