Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950
by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge
"Hail to children! . . . Children! They rule the world. The mother and the child are the two sacredest figures in our modern life and literature." This exclamation by literary critic Eugene Benson indicates the revered position that "the dimpled darlings of our household, the little demi-deities of the cradle" held in mid-nineteenth-century American culture. Benson was writing shortly after the Civil War, at a moment when children were newly looked upon as redeemers of a society that their forebears had failed. He addressed the privileged role that children had come to occupy in modern letters, especially citing Wordsworth and Longfellow, Whittier and Hawthorne, "'writers deficient in passion, but tender and contemplative, . . . or simply domestic, like Mrs. Stowe." In their writings, children achieved a central position of the sort they had long enjoyed in religion and the visual arts. At least from the Renaissance, he noted, "art had scattered its laughing and smoothly-curved images [of children] over the fronts of palaces, about altars, and in pictures."
In America, palaces and altars were notably lacking in the early years of European settlement, and where children did appear in pictures, they were generally presented as miniature adults. By the early nineteenth century, however, what Henry Tuckerman called "this normal sympathy between the mature and childhood" led to a new appreciation of the early years as a special and distinct phase of a human's life. Tuckerman believed that "there is not a more suggestive chapter in human history. . . than that which records the recollections of childhood by introspective men." During his lifetime (1813-71), depictions and recollections of childhood by painters -- introspective or otherwise, male or female -- flourished, and changed in character from those by earlier colonials.
The difference was apparent as early as the 1820s, when Thomas Sully painted Juvenile Ambition (cat. no. 57). Sully copied his composition from Grandfather's Hobby, circa 1824 (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum), a work by his friend Charles Bird King, a Washington portraitist and genre painter. Instead of presenting the boy as a miniature adult, both artists depicted him in his childish role-playing: with tricorn and spectacle, walking stick and newspaper, the subject acts the grandfatherly adult but clearly is still a child. The youthful game of make-believe adds a note of gentle humor to Sully's genre scene, which is representative of the "fancy" or fanciful picture that enjoyed an international vogue during the early nineteenth century. An engraving of Sully's copy after King's painting appeared in 1830 in The Token, a popular gift book, where it was accompanied by a verse describing the impact that the grandfather's stories of the heroic "olden time" had on the young boy:
The anonymous poet, who apparently was inspired by the painting, like Sully or King looks back from his maturity on that "boyish glory" with bemused ambivalence. The attitude was common in the period, as Tuckerman noted, and led to other poetic laments:
Youthful imitation of elders often attracted the attention of painters. Chester Harding, for example, about 1833 portrayed a young girl as she rehearsed the hostess's role with her toy tea set (Harriet Gardner Denny, Telfair Museum of Art). The protagonist of Eastman Johnson's Earnest Pupil (The Fifers), 1881 (cat. no. 36), pays rapt attention to the musician whose skills he hopes to emulate on his small pipe. The generational transfer of knowledge -- from parent to child, from master to apprentice -- was the traditional basis of education; only during the later nineteenth century did institutionalized public education become widespread in the United States, and even then the training of the young by elders continued in many fields.
The child's aspiration to adult mien and manners -- to grandfather's hobby -- did not charm everyone. During the nineteenth century, some British visitors voiced disapproval of the youngest members of American society. "Many of the children in this country," wrote one, "appear to be painfully precocious -- small stuck-up caricatures of men and women, with but little of the fresh ingenuousness and playfulness of childhood." Another complained that "Little America is unhappily, generally, only grown-up America, seen through a telescope turned the wrong way." What the United States lacked was "real child-like children."
Such criticism might seem strange, coming as it did from visitors from Dickens's London with its teeming tenements and armies of child laborers. Similar conditions could be found in this country at midcentury as well, and on occasion provided the subject for urban genre painters. George Henry Hall depicted three urban urchins in Boys Pilfering Molasses, 1853 (cat. no. 28). He found his subject in New York, the city to which he returned in 1852 following his studies in Dusseldorf. Although he is best known today for his sparkling still lifes, it was in Germany that Hall learned the meticulous finish and developed the penchant for genre subjects by which he initially came to acclaim. Hall's boys enjoying illicit molasses scarcely look like the suffering waifs who became the cause of later social reformers; their neat clothes and clean faces suggest an urban counterpart to the healthy young fraternity that gamboled in William Baker's or other rural pastures (cat. no. 4). Molasses constituted an important part of the triangular trade between Africa, the Caribbean, and north Atlantic ports, commerce that had early brought enslaved Africans to the New World; but the jaunty African American boy in Hall's painting was, like all of his race in New York by that date, a free black, in "The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves!" His inclusion in this scene more likely was intended for "local color" rather than any abolitionist statement. The port of New York -- Walt Whitman's "mast-hemm'd Manhattan," to which ships brought molasses and other goods from around the globe -- was the major commercial center in the United States, its economic and cultural domination suggested by the "Empire Line" reference in the background. Despite this metropolitan "imperial" status, the docks (the symbol of the city's trade and prosperity) and the teeming life of New York harbor seldom figured in genre pictures; as Hermann Williams noted, "Few indeed are the scenes which record this vanished and picturesque side of nineteenth-century American life."
From the 1860s and later, the young lads in John G. Brown's hugely popular paintings worked a different part of town, the city sidewalks where bootblacks, street vendors, and other young New Yorkers congregated. Their appearance was familiar: by the 1880s, there were an estimated one million working children in New York City, thousands of them homeless. Their youth and their occupations were not, of course, unique, either to Brown or to New York; newsboys in particular had been a favorite subject of urban genre artists for at least a generation and remained so throughout the century in numerous centers. Like the Louisville newsboy depicted by local artist Aurelius Revenaugh (fig. 30), they often carry a hometown paper, a combined tribute to place and commerce. In Brown's Three for Five (cat. no. 11), the young flower seller holds out his bargain carnations in an effort to stop the foot traffic that passes by unseen. Like Hall's molasses pilferers, he is neatly turned out, his simple garb worn but clean; he is dressed in what one curator calls the "iconography of the city" -- old boots, drab brown trousers held up with suspenders, and cloth cap. Even the corner on which he stands is tidy, with only a few of the flowers' leaves casually dropped on the pavement. Clearly, he is not one the hapless, grimy urchins that Jacob Riis was beginning to photograph at the same time, whose images he, and later Lewis Hine, used to motivate child labor reform. The boy's expectant expression makes it seem that a sale might be near, the realization of his entrepreneurial hopes. The large format of Brown's canvas -- it is of a dimension customarily used for society portraits -- appears to ennoble the young capitalist at work, a sentimental celebration of free enterprise that would have been favored by the merchants whose patronage made Brown wealthy. In his later years, the artist himself apparently came to believe in his painted fictions, claiming often that many of his street urchin models had gone on to become successful businessmen. "Brown's real genius," Martha Hoppin summarized, "lay in his ability to tell a story and to sense the direction of popular taste." This enabled him to serve long and ably the public's appetite for narrative paintings.
If Brown's stock in trade was New York's working young of the late nineteenth century, Edward Potthast's was the next generation's urban population at leisure. He was particularly acclaimed for his paintings of children playing on the beach of Coney Island or other metropolitan shores. During the last several decades of his career, Potthast repeated this motif many times over, an ongoing celebration of a halcyon moment in American life. Begun around the start of the twentieth century, the beach scenes captured the innocence of that pre-World War I era. Potthast painted with a broad and loose brushwork, often using a high keyed palette. Rather different from the piles of humanity that Reginald Marsh later described on these same shores during the Great Depression (cat. no. 45), Potthast's interest is more in the atmosphere -- the holiday brightness of color, sparkling sunlight on foaming waves, the fresh sea breeze -- conveyed through impressionist technique. These felicitous, carefree moments at the shore are suggested as well through his titles, such as Happy Days, circa 1910 (cat. no. 51).
The urban scene that motivated artists of Brown's and Potthast's generations continued to inspire painters throughout the twentieth century. The social realists who flourished in the 1930s, including Reginald Marsh and Jack Levine (cat. no. 41), were succeeded by a postwar generation that reacted in different ways to the city setting. Out of its dense space and dynamic energy, some created a new, nonrepresentational expression, in which personality counted only insofar as it could be expressed through "authentic" but abstract gesture or form. In this new abstract expression, narrative was effaced by formal, pictorial concerns and the process of creation. As Max Kozloff summarized the situation, narration belonged to an older culture and "on no account was the Modernist work of art to be understood as an account, as an allusion to interwoven or sequenced events, or to human cause and effect."
Of course, not all agreed. Other artists, not part of the abstract expressionist camp, responded to the postwar age of anxiety by resorting to traditions of representation, often tinged with expressionist angst. Such was the case with Andree Ruellan, whose prewar concerns for American scene imagery yielded in the late 1940s to a darker, more personal approach, one that on occasion incorporated surrealistic elements. Her early works were primarily figurative, inspired by observations of the people around Woodstock, New York, where she was a longtime member of the local art colony, or from her travels to Savannah and Charleston; in the latter she discovered the motif for Crap Game, 1936 (fig. 25), which is characteristic of her work from that period. "What moves me most," she explained a few years later, "is that in spite of poverty and the constant struggle for existence, so much kindness and sturdy courage remain." While striving for good design and technique, Ruellan also wanted "to convey these warmer human emotions. . . . my deepest interest has been and is for people, at work or at play."
The young people at play in Ruellan's Children's Mardi Gras, 1949 (cat. no. 52), however, bear scant resemblance to the figures from her prewar works. Costumed and masked, like the revelers in McCrady's Parade (cat. no. 47), Ruellan's subjects leave an unsettling impression, more akin to a madhouse than a Mardi Gras. From the blackness behind a barrier, four children struggle to join their cohort, who are held in (or out?) by a high wall and menacing pales. They have been likened to the grotesques that appear in some of Francisco Goya's more nightmarish scenes; closer to the artist's own time, the dancing couple and noisemakers recall the contorted figures of George Tooker's cruel Children and Spastics, 1946 (private collection), or the masked New York gamins photographed by Helen Levitt (fig. 31). The cataclysm of war and the havoc wrought on France, Ruellan's ancestral and sentimental homeland, left the artist in a transformed state; while her subjects remained figurative, they grew increasingly symbolic and reflect a darker mood at midcentury.
Paul Cadmus also had a keen eye for the changing social landscape at midcentury. His art earned him notoriety when one of his paintings, The Fleet's In!, 1934 (Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.), was ordered removed from an exhibition of government-sponsored works at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. Navy brass objected that it gave an unsavory view of randy sailors on shore leave consorting with a variety of both women and men, many apparently of dubious repute; it was, claimed the Navy Secretary, the product of a "sordid, depraved, imagination." Years later, the bemused painter commented, "I owe the start of my career really to the Admiral who tried to suppress it." Early on, Cadmus had discovered the potential power of the narrative picture, and for many years he remained faithful to that pursuit, admitting, "I would be pleased to be remembered as a literary painter." He also remained constant in his devotion to a painstaking technique of academic realism, used to render the human form -- idealized or grotesque, female or, especially, male, viewed through the eye of an unapologetic homosexual -- in various situations, from classical pose to satirical tableaux.
In one of his best-known works, Cadmus presented a cast of various young urban types, gathered in and around the caged confines of a bleak city playground (cat. no. 13). With exquisite draftsmanship and painstaking egg tempera technique, Cadmus created an icon of midcentury angst. With his art, the tale is in details, which reward close scrutiny. At the left, a teenaged pair erotically couples, his ski-jump nose echoing her uplifted breasts. Leaning against the screen and the pair, a swarthy male with bared torso grasps his cigarette with one hand, and with the other, things unseen in his pants. A skinny redhead behind him takes the measure of the phallic bat balanced on his middle finger. Another baseball bat emerges from between the legs of young tough at the right; he is part of a muscular trio that includes a black pressed close behind him and a nose-picking blonde whose physical endowment strains against his unbuckling pants. Their fraternity bears little semblance to "those budding potentates -- the boys," the subjects beloved by nineteenth-century genre painters, storytellers, and their audiences. Behind them, separated from this adolescent community by the wire screen, a meditative figure seems lost in thought beneath a sign with the admonitory word fragment NO. Above them all, another bare-chested youth is suspended from the fence in a rising pose suggestive of Superman or, oddly, the airborne nude in Maltby Sykes's Ascension (cat. no. 58). In the caged space beyond the screen, two boys play some sort of handball game, a favorite city pastime that, a decade earlier, Ben Shahn had used in a series of paintings and photographs to symbolize urban anomie. The playground is squeezed by the buildings beyond, including tenements, some of which are ruined by arson, others still inhabited. Several occupants of the latter are seen at the windows; one turns her ample backside to the youths as she struggles, futilely, to clean her environs; above her, another appears with a skull-like face. The church at left is partially eclipsed by the building in front of it; its power to effect change, to offer hope in this bleak precinct, seems canceled by a laundry line before it, from which suspend women's undergarments. In the foreground, garbage and trash reinforce the sense of ruination; cracked pavement suggests the broken dreams of this place. The headlines of discarded newspapers verbally enhance the effect: OFFENSIVE -- DENOUNCES PEACE -- WAR -- POWER -- WOULD FORCE ALL TO COMPLY. Amid this wreckage and dominating the foreground is a blond ephebe, through whom we literally and figuratively enter the scene. Pale in complexion, the golden boy seemingly emanates lightness in these drear environs; substantially nude, his physical perfection stands in contrast to the mannered poses and physiques of his company, as he stares out beseechingly from amidst the social and physical detritus of the modern city.
The painting tells a stirring story for an anxious age. Speaking of the primary figure, Cadmus said that he saw no place for this "sensitive individual in this corrupting environment." He asked, "What is to become of him?" -- a plea to which the painting offers little solace and no answer.
The world painted and inhabited by Andrew Wyeth seems a rebuke to the city's "corrupting environment." Yet even in his woods and fields at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, or the weathered, Christina's-world landscape of Cushing, Maine, the anxieties of midcentury were apparent. These he conveyed through portrayals of his crippled neighbor, Christina Olson, or his repeated images of dead birds and animals or of various architectural and still-life subjects that bespeak decrepitude. Katherine Kuh attributed the artist's unprecedented popularity to the temper of the times that his paintings so often reflect. "No time or place in history," she wrote in the late 1960s, "could be better adapted to the hero worship of this particular artist than present-day America," a frenetic society with a nostalgia for a simpler life. "The more international our world, the more tormented it is by unrest, the more unstable our social fabric, the more, alas, we turn to oversimplistic solutions." Viewing his Winter 1946 (cat. no. 70), one might quarrel with Kuh's implication of the artist's "oversimplicity," but surely not with her apt characterization of the "pervasive solitude that underlies Wyeth's work.." Like Cadmus's Playground, Wyeth's composition centers on a young boy, but now alone in a bare and wintery rural landscape. Wyeth used egg tempera (again, like Cadmus), a demanding medium he favored for its "feeling of dry lostness." A sense of "lostness" pervades the dark picture, which was painted shortly after the death of N. C. Wyeth, the noted illustrator and Andrew's teacher and father, and captures what the artist remembered as his "vast gloomy feeling." Andrew Wyeth has spoken of Winter 1946 in personal terms, explaining that the hill became a symbolic portrait of his father; the bulging forms "seem[ed] to be breathing -- rising and falling -- almost as if my father was underneath them." Patches of rotting snow are pocketed in crevices of the landscape, like "little islands of dying winter. They're very symbolic to me," Wyeth explained. Across this symbolic landscape, a young boy runs, fairly tumbles down the hillside. He represents the artist's "feeling of being disconnected from everything. It was me, at a loss -- that hand drifting in the air was my free soul, groping." And behind the boy, in close pursuit, his dark shadow symbolizes fear and death. With such subtle details, Wyeth compiles this pictorial narrative o floss; but, as the artist warns, "I want more than half the story. There are some people who like my work because they see every blade of grass. They're seeing only one side of it. They don't see the tone." The essential "tone" resides in the combination of subjects faithfully depicted, blade by grassy blade, with formal, even abstract pictorial concerns. "If you can combine realism and abstraction," he adds, "you've got something terrific." In Winter 1946, the combination results in Wyeth's most personal expression of grief, the whole story told in particulars described and abstractions implied.
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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:
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