Children in 19th-century art reflect nation's fears, dreams

Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center child

Snap the Whip, by Homer Winslow, is on view through May 7 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts as part of the exhibit “American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America.”

Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center ABC

The Berry Boy (circa 1875), by John George Brown, is on view as part of the exhibit “American ABC.”

Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center child osceola

Osceola Nick-a-no-chee, A Boy (1840) by George Catlin.

The idea that they might botch up the fragile republic that was the United States "scared the bejesus" out of the 19th-century inheritors of American democracy, said Claire Perry, curator of the scholarly and spirited exhibit American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America, on view at the Cantor Arts Center through May 7.

In the early decades of the 19th century, Americans grew nervous as the colonial era, peopled by revolutionary elites like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, gave way to the era of the common man, said Perry, curator of American art, at a Feb. 15 campus lecture. (The rowdy celebrants at President Andrew Jackson's 1829 inauguration broke windows at the White House and had to be lured outside with barrels of whiskey placed on the lawn, she noted.)

As Americans worried that republican institutions might not survive the radical egalitarianism of the age, they also wrestled with such destabilizing and tortuous issues as immigration, industrialization, slavery and westward expansion, she said. Terrified that it all might fall apart, Americans turned their attention to more soothing subjects, ones that also held out hope for the future, Perry said: "children."

American ABC examines the multiple, sometimes contradictory, ways in which 19th-century America represented its children and projected onto them its dreams and fears. Artists, as well as politicians, the clergy, novelists, poets and others, turned to childhood and children as a way of establishing a unifying set of values as well as picturing what "ideal young republicans" should be like, she said.

Perry includes in the exhibit iconic images created by such celebrated artists and writers as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, George Catlin, Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain. But the multilayered, democratic exhibit also includes images created by the anonymous photographers, obscure diarists, bureaucrats and little-known painters and illustrators who also contributed to America's record.

American ABC will travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which currently is undergoing a major renovation, for its grand reopening in July. The exhibit "charts intellectual new ground in a very provocative and interesting way," said Tom Seligman, director of the Cantor Arts Center. "I really have to say, [Perry] has opened my eyes in a very different way to what 19th-century America was." A catalog, Young America: Childhood in 19th-Century Art and Culture, published by Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibit.

In the exhibit, Perry has divided material into six sections, each of which links a childhood type with corresponding ideas and issues.

Many images in the "Country Boy" section embody Thomas Jefferson's assertion that the "best kind of Americans" lived on farms, where they could be self-sufficient and therefore not easily bribed by political candidates, Perry said. Wearing suspenders and a straw hat, the tanned, vigorous youngster in John George Brown's oil painting The Berry Boy, circa 1875, is shown confidently scaling a rock wall with a pail of berries. The image was a persistent one, even as artists complained that they couldn't find any rural subjects like these in New England because "they were all looking for jobs in the city," Perry said.

There was no 19th-century female counterpart to the "country boy" phenomenon, Perry said. It was an era of "separate spheres" for males and females, in which the home was left to women while men were off claiming continents, inventing the steam engine and "pursuing happiness in ways that involved their self-interest," she said. Nineteenth-century images of girls, as reflected in the "Daughters of Liberty" section, most often depicted them placidly engaging in domestic activities like gathering flowers, playing with pets or sewing. But somber tones and unsettling imagery in some of the works, such as Seymour Guy's Dressing for the Rehearsal, circa 1890—in which a pair of butterfly wings throw a monstrous shadow on a wall—indicate that all is not necessarily well, Perry said. An 1871 Thomas Eakins painting, Elizabeth with a Dog, which depicts a young girl commanding her poodle to sit, was unconventional in its time for the expression of fierce intelligence and forcefulness that Eakins gave the young woman, Perry said. ("You go, girl," she added.)

'We have to face this'

It was emotionally very difficult to research material for the "Children of Bondage" section, which examines how African American children were represented in the 19th century, Perry said, "but we have to face this; this is our family album." The complexity of the story of race relations and racism during the 19th century is mirrored by the diversity of images and attitudes represented, ranging from studio photography of middle-class and formerly enslaved African Americans to paintings of escaped slaves held as Northern prisoners in the Civil War and of middle-class Northern white families with marginalized black servants.

The exponential growth of American cities, which by mid-century were overcrowded with unskilled immigrants, gave rise to the images in the "Ragamuffins" section, Perry said. Jacob Riis' photographs of ragged children sleeping over grates in the streets of New York in the latter part of the century shows the degradation of the urban poor. The exhibit also offers sunnier depictions, like those of spunky "newsboys," who were conceived as poor "go-getters" on their way up, Perry said. Henry Inman's News Boy, 1841, is leaning insouciantly on the stairs of the Astor Hotel, the most luxurious in New York. "There is this idea that even though he is a newsboy today, soon he will be walking up those stairs," Perry said.

"The Papoose" section follows the arc of white Americans' changing views about Native Americans over time. As the pressure to displace Native Americans grew, "you started hearing talk of Indians being on the way out," she noted. The portraits of Native Americans by painter George Catlin are "taxidermic" in their attention to the task of recording for posterity the details about the groups of people he was certain were on their way out, she said.

Perry doesn't much like Grace Hudson Carpenter's 1892 painting Little Mendocino, which shows a crying baby in a cradleboard and was so popular at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that it had to be moved several times to accommodate the crowds, she said. But she included it in the exhibit to illustrate how Americans dealt with their growing discomfort with the treatment of Native Americans near the end of the century. The painting reduced a "century's worth of transgression and crimes by politicians, soldiers, Indian agents, ranchers and railroad builders into one tiny bundle of woe," Perry wrote in the catalog.

A section titled "The New Scholar," which brings together a diversity of American children as related to schools and education, illustrates the complicated “choreography of democracy” that was enacted in schools across the country, Perry said. (The exhibition space includes a hands-on replica of a 19th-century schoolroom, outfitted with benches, slates, switches and books for and about children.)

The 19th-century belief in the transformative power of education is exemplified in Eastman Johnson's Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln, which depicts a young Lincoln, his face glowing, reading before a fire. The painting was created in 1868, following both Lincoln's death and the Civil War, which had claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans. "There was a terrible sense of the loss of innocence, of having made mistakes that were unforgivable, final, indelible," Perry said.

Just at this low ebb, "this image of young Abe surfaced as a reminder of the Founding Fathers' advice about 'correct nurture.' In our own troubled times of terrible mistakes—of Abu Ghraib and the inequalities exposed by Hurricane Katrina—we can see very plainly how fragile our democracy is," Perry continued. Now, as it did then, the painting "promised citizens that they had a second chance to get it right," she said.

Special programs associated with the exhibit include a 19th-century school lesson, given every Friday at 11:30 a.m. in the replica classroom, and volunteer actors who appear in the gallery as 19th-century historical and literary figures including Huck Finn, Frederick Douglass and others. Family Day on Sunday, April 2, will feature storytelling, music, period arts and crafts and other activities. For more information, call 725-3155.