Editor's note: The Boston Athenæum provided source material to Resource Library for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Boston Athenæum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Seen But Not Heard: Images of Children from the Collection of the Boston Athenæum
September 14 - December 4, 2004
(above: gallery view of exhibition Seen But Not Heard: Images of Children from the Collection of the Boston Athenæum. Photo courtesy of Boston Athenæum,)
Seen But Not Heard, an exhibition of images of children from the collection of the Boston Athenæum, will open in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery on September 14 and run through December 4, 2004. The exhibition will include over fifty paintings, sculptures, lithographs, engravings, and photographs, including the work of Rembrandt Peale, John Gadsby Chapman, Horatio Greenough, Harriet Hosmer, Cephas Thompson, Rose Lamb, William Morris Hunt, Sears Gallagher, and Alan Crite.
In one form or another, children have been subjects of the visual arts throughout Western history; they appear in almost every media and as the expressive vehicle of numerous themes, both allegorical and otherwise. The child-gods Cupid and Bacchus abet the antics of their mature counterparts on Greek vases and in classical sculpture. Their iconographic descendants, putti and angels, serve similar functions in Christian art, especially in the Renaissance. More earthly children of various temperaments are subject enough for genre painters both in seventeenth-century Holland and in nineteenth-century England and America. And proud or bereaved parents order images of their little ones in a variety of poses and media. Such images, notably from the last two groups, are the focus of the exhibition Seen but Not Heard: Images of Children from the Collection of the Boston Athenæum. (right: gallery view of exhibition Seen But Not Heard: Images of Children from the Collection of the Boston Athenæum. This photo shows three sculptures of the exhibition with partial view on right of Harriet Goodhue Hosmer's Will-o-the-Wisp, c. 1866. Photo courtesy of Boston Athenæum,)
By focusing on the subject of children in art, this exhibition reveals the richness of the Athenæum's collections. Over two dozen painters, sculptors, photographers, and graphic artists-several of whom actually specialized in images of children-are represented in the exhibition. Notable here is Cephas Thompson (1775-1856), a successful early nineteenth-century portrait painter who, when he was not traveling around the country fulfilling portrait commissions, used his own children as the subjects of his work. Eight of Thompson's familial images are in this exhibition. Undoubtedly inspired by the talent apparent in these paintings, several of Thompson's children became artists. The best known of these is his son Cephas Giovanni Thompson, whose own group portrait of himself, his wife, and all their children is in the exhibition. It is a wonderfully imaginative image, a veritable genealogy on canvas.
The most common subject category in art is portraiture, and Seen but Not Heard has a generous sampling of portraits of children. Because portraits most often depict people unfamiliar to the viewer, they run the risk of being boring. Therefore, unless their sitter is a famous person, artists often enliven portraits by introducing furnishings, fabrics, elaborate costumes, or even landscape backgrounds into the image. In his otherwise simple portrait of Samuel Eliot, for example, Rembrandt Peale drapes a thick piece of red fabric over the child's shoulders, thereby introducing color and texture into the painting. At the same time, the cloth suggests a link to cultured world of the classical past. Because portraits of children are almost by definition sentimental, artists often seem to have an easier time depicting children in an interesting way. In the case of Samuel Eliot, the viewer is attracted by the sweetness of the face; the simple, symbolic robe is the only extra device that is needed for the work to achieve the status of art.
Another artist who was quite adept at portraiture was William Morris Hunt; but Hunt was also interested in allegorical imagery and combined these themes in Boy with Butterfly, painted in the early 1870s. Family traditional says that Hunt posed his young son Paul for the figure, which becomes not only a cherished image of the boy but a painted paean to lost innocence and the passage of time. (right: gallery view of exhibition Seen But Not Heard: Images of Children from the Collection of the Boston Athenæum. Painting in center of photo is Boy with a Butterfly, by William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), 1870. oil on canvas. Bequest of William Morris Hunt II, 2003. Photo courtesy of Boston Athenæum,)
Time, in fact, is a common, underlying theme in images of children; the speed with which time passes and the parallel concern with death are often suggested and even painted outright in portraits of children. Infant mortality remained high during the nineteenth century and most families had lost one child or more. Parental bereavement created a market for posthumous portraits based on images made of the child before death or, more morbidly, on sketches made of the unfortunate one as he or she lay on the deathbed or in the coffin.
Death can compromise domestic tranquility from another direction, too; that is, with the premature death of one or both parents. The little known Leopold Grozelier evokes the poignancy of orphaned children in a lithograph published by Williams and Everett in Boston in 1859.
These mournful images aside, children were more often used by artists as expressions of vibrancy and energy. In their more lively form they were directly linked with nature and were understood as extensions of it. Painters often placed children in natural settings where they are usually involved in some seemingly trivial pursuit; examples here are Hunt's Boy with Butterfly, mentioned above, the graphic images of Boston artist Sears Gallagher, or the painting Landscape with a House and a Boy Playing with a Hoop by an anonymous artist. Hunt's painting follows a tradition by which a child contemplates a delicate or ephemeral creature object such as a butterfly, bird, shell, or flower. These add color, beauty, movement, and texture to a painting, while symbolizing transitory youth, lost innocence, or the futile pursuit of a dream. At the same time, children were increasingly associated with small, gentle mammals, an association made aural with the application of common endearments such as "pet," "kitten," or "lamb" for human children. Again, besides being expressions of emotional attachment, these references emphasize innocence and may even suggest an attempt to inspire good behavior. (right: gallery view of exhibition Seen But Not Heard: Images of Children from the Collection of the Boston Athenæum. Photo courtesy of Boston Athenæum,)
Qualities often associated with children, such as innocence, precocity, humor, and bad behavior, are certainly in evidence throughout these galleries. Perhaps most pervasive, though, is the use of sentiment and nostalgia, characteristics that artists seem unable to avoid when dealing with the subject of children.
Forum Network is an audio and video streaming web site dedicated to curating
and serving live and on-demand lectures, including a number of videos on
Art and Architecture. Partners include a number of Boston-area museums,
colleges, universities and other cultural organizations. Boston Athenaeum
partnered with the Forum Network for a series of lectures
on American art by David Dearinger,  who is Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at
the Boston Athenaeum. An art historian and curator, he received his Ph.D.
from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with a specialty
in nineteenth-century American art. See Seen
But Not Heard: Images of Children in American Art (1 hour, 27 minutes)
which uses nineteenth and early twentieth-century American art to illustrate
perceptions of childhood. [November 30, 2004]
Following is a checklist of the artworks in the exhibition:
WORKS ON PAPER:
The Boston Athenæum, founded in 1807, is one of the oldest and most distinguished independent libraries in the United States. Its collections comprise over half a million books (with particular strengths in Boston history, New England state and local history, biography, English and American literature, and the fine and decorative arts), paintings, sculpture, prints and photographs, and decorative arts. The Athenæum presents a dynamic exhibition schedule in its Norma Jean Calderwood Exhibition Gallery and sponsors a variety of programs, such as lectures, concerts, and discussion groups. The Boston Athenæum is located at 10 1/2 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108. Athenæum membership is open to all.
For hours and admission fees please see the Athenæum's website.
1. Further articles and essays in Resource Library concerning Dr. Dearinger include:
(above: Boston Athenæum, photo, © 2004 John Hazeltine)
Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc. (TFAO) neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Boston Athenæum in Resource Library.
Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
© Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.