Editor's note: The Smithsonian American Art Museum 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 Smithsonian American Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America

July 1 through September 17, 2006

 

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America recently toured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from July 1 through September 17, 2006. The exhibition was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

American ABC exhibition is one of the most comprehensive art exhibitions in recent decades to deal with images of children and their relationship to the American quest for national identity. The exhibition, which features paintings by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, George Catlin, Eastman Johnson and other well-known artists, was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University in California.

"This exhibition includes many delightful artworks about children by America's most revered masters," said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the museum. "It's fascinating to learn how these works reveal concerns that were at the center of national life."

Over the course of the 19th century, the United States grew from an infant republic to a powerful nation with a prominent place in world affairs. "American ABC" demonstrates how portrayals of the nation's youngest citizens took on an important symbolic role in the United States' long journey towards maturity, and provides a window into the everyday life of the period-the world of families, children's pastimes and the routines of the schoolhouse.

Featuring paintings, prints, photographs and books selected from major museums, libraries, archives and private collections throughout the United States, "American ABC" explores the connection between images of the American child and the democratic ideals of the young United States. The exhibition centers on six childhood types: the country boy, the American girl, the African American child, the urban waif, the Native American child and the child in school. "American ABC" also includes a wide variety of illustrated children's books, such as Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," Noah Webster's "Elementary Spelling Book," McGuffey's readers and colorful ABC primers.

"The exhibition is about 19th-century Americans who were trying to live up to the Founding Fathers' vision for the United States," said Claire Perry, exhibition curator and curator of American art at the Cantor Arts Center. "As these citizens confronted the economic, political and racial problems of their time-the same issues we struggle with today-they created idealized images of American children that pointed the way to a bright future for the nation." The exhibition's presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum also will include artworks from the museum's permanent collection. Paintings by George Catlin and several sculptures, including works by Thomas Crawford, Harriet Hosmer and William Henry Rinehart among others, will be included at this venue only. Programs and activities for children will take place in a re-creation of a 19th-century schoolroom that is based on depictions by Winslow Homer.

The exhibition, accompanying book and related programs are made possible by the generosity of Carmen Christensen with additional support from Peter and Helen Bing, the Hohbach Family Fund and Cantor Arts Center members. Peter and Helen Bing and Zions Bank support the presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

 

Publication

The book that accompanies the exhibition, "Young America: Childhood in 19th-Century Art and Culture," is written by Claire Perry and is jointly published by the Cantor Arts Center and Yale University Press.

 


 

Wall text from the exhibition

 

American ABC

Childhood in 19th-Century America

Americans of the nineteenth century were keenly aware of their role as the heirs of the Founding Fathers and the guardians of a new nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Guided by the advice of the Revolutionary generation, they believed that the health of the republic depended on the creation of a virtuous citizenry ready to assume the responsibilities of self-government. As political leaders, editors, novelists, ministers, and educators debated ways to enlighten and uplift the body politic, the nurture and education of children became a dominant theme in public life. Children came to be seen as the key to the nation's longevity and the guarantee that the United States' democratic institutions would endure.

In an environment charged with both optimism and anxiety about the future, images of children in paintings, prints, advertisements, schoolbook illustrations, and photographs helped to provide citizens of every class and region with a sense of the underlying stability of their society. Many of these pictures showed idealized children in rural settings, confirming that the agrarian class Thomas Jefferson had called the bedrock of the nation was renewing itself in the nation's abundant open spaces. Other portrayals openly confronted the most contentious issues of the day---urban poverty, racial inequality, immigration, industrialization---and reduced them to reassuringly Lilliputian proportions.

During the course of the century, the culture of childhood became an important part of the processes through which the fragmented assembly of states that existed before the Civil War became the singular United States---a nation with an increasingly centralized government that defined itself by the motto: "E Pluribus Unum."

American ABC is organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. The exhibition, accompanying catalogue, and related programs are made possible by the generosity of Carmen Christensen with additional support from Peter and Helen Bing, the Hohbach Family Fund, and Cantor Arts Center members.

 

Childhood in 19th-Century America

Americans of the nineteenth century were keenly aware of their role as the heirs of the Founding Fathers and the guardians of a new nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Guided by the advice of the Revolutionary generation, they believed that the health of the republic depended on the creation of a virtuous citizenry ready to assume the responsibilities of self-government. As political leaders, editors, novelists, ministers, and educators debated ways to enlighten and uplift the body politic, the nurture and education of children became a dominant theme in public life. Children came to be seen as the key to the nation's longevity and the guarantee that the United States' democratic institutions would endure.

In an environment charged with both optimism and anxiety about the future, images of children in paintings, prints, advertisements, schoolbook illustrations, and photographs helped to provide citizens of every class and region with a sense of the underlying stability of their society. Many of these pictures showed idealized children in rural settings, confirming that the agrarian class Thomas Jefferson had called the bedrock of the nation was renewing itself in the nation's abundant open spaces. Other portrayals openly confronted the most contentious issues of the day---urban poverty, racial inequality, immigration, industrialization---and reduced them to reassuringly Lilliputian proportions.

During the course of the century, the culture of childhood became an important part of the processes through which the fragmented assembly of states that existed before the Civil War became the singular United States---a nation with an increasingly centralized government that defined itself by the motto: "E Pluribus Unum."

 

The Country Boy

The United States of the nineteenth century was a young nation and its citizens were also youthful. In 1830 one third of the population was less than ten years old and the median age was sixteen. Eager to define themselves as a people and to show that their nation was different-and better-than the nations of the Old World, Americans asserted their identity through patriotic ballads, novels about frontier adventures, political satires, and pictures that described typical citizens of the republic. The Country Boy was one of the new national types to emerge in the art and popular imagery of the period.

Forthright and full of energy, the Country Boy's sturdy figure embodied the simple virtues that citizens associated with their untrammeled continent and fledgling democracy. American audiences applauded his independent spirit, which often manifested itself as a healthy disregard for the authority of teachers, parents, and clergymen. Over the course of the century, the Country Boy came to represent not only the nation's political and social freedoms, but also the unpretentiousness and flair for invention that Americans believed were the essence of the national character.

 

Daughters of Liberty

During the nineteenth century, Americans believed that males and females occupied "separate spheres" in behavior, work, and creative expression. This belief shaped the boundaries of American society and influenced all aspects of daily life, from the arrangement of seating on trains and the use of medicines to the design of furniture and school curricula.

Males were identified with exploration, inventiveness, and enterprise, while females were thought to be naturally inclined toward patience, kindness, thrift, moderation, and other virtues that revolved around the home. Praised by political leaders and ministers as creatures of superior moral influence, females were appointed to be guardians of the nation's democracy. In the name of a higher calling, they were diverted from their pursuit of political and economic equality. Women were encouraged to act as moral guides for their brothers and husbands and, though they did not have the right to vote themselves, were charged with the nurture and education of future voters.

For male citizens who were busy directing their energies to the work of state- building, images of little embroiderers, flower girls, and pie-makers promised that westward expansion and free enterprise would go hand-in-hand with well managed households and delicious dinners served on time.

 

Children of Bondage

Pictures of African-American children were widely popular during the nineteenth century, and they were viewed and purchased by audiences from a broad range of regional and political backgrounds. Drawing on an extensive repertory of stereotypes built up since colonial times, portrayals of African-American children were also inspired by depictions in contemporary literature and minstrel theater. By the 1850s, when debates over slavery reached a fever pitch across the land, the image of the black child had become a charged subject that aroused deep emotions in Americans from both the North and the South. Abolitionist tracts included images and stories about infants on the auction block, while pro-slavery authors published books with illustrations of contented slave youngsters playing on plantations. Even artists hoping to steer clear of racial controversies created paintings of African-American children and exhibited them in the elite galleries of New York and Philadelphia­­as if the innocence of those portrayed might somehow transcend the ugliness of the struggle that culminated with the Civil War.

 

Children of the Streets

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a new theme emerged in American art, one that had appeared only rarely in paintings, books, and journals before that time: the street child. Where images of country boys, little ladies, and slave children dealt with beliefs about democracy, gender, and race that had been prevalent since the days of the Revolution, the destitute child was a novel subject. For most Americans, the realization that a mass of impoverished "street arabs" roved the nation's cities was shocking and incomprehensible. Citizens at mid-century were astonished by published statistics that revealed the exponential growth of American cities-and troubled by the fact that much of it was driven by skyrocketing rates of immigration. More than 1.5 million European immigrants arrived in the United States between 1840 and 1850. During the 1850s an additional 2.5 million immigrants came to the United States, and most settled in the large cities of the northeast.

In the 1830s and 1840s depictions of street children first began to creep into visual and literary media. By that time civic authorities in Boston and New York had already been busy for decades trying to deal with large-scale homelessness in their cities. Americans had grown accustomed to seeing little ragamuffins, both on city streets and in pictures displayed in homes and art galleries. For audiences disturbed by newspaper accounts documenting the growing problem of poverty in America's cities, pictures of vagrant children represented a way to fathom the troublesome issue of scarcity in a land of abundance.

 

Indian Children

Publicity surrounding the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which mandated that all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi move west of that river, heightened interest in documenting Indian society. During the 1830s and 1840s, artist-explorers, including George Catlin and John Mix Stanley, traveled extensively to make visual accounts of tribes pushed westward by development.

Native American children, however, were an uncommon subject in artworks and popular images until the final decades of the nineteenth century. Even artists who specialized in Indian themes gave native children only the most cursory treatment in their works. Artists' representations of domestic scenes that included children were usually outnumbered by pictures of buffalo hunts and tribal warfare, reflecting the taste of eastern audiences for such subjects. The prevalent notion that America's original inhabitants were a people doomed to extinction by progress may have also discouraged portrayals of a thriving new generation of Native Americans.

After the completion of the transcontinental railroad line in 1869, which helped make remote native settlements more accessible to artists and other visitors, Indian children began to appear more frequently in paintings, magazine illustrations, advertisements, and documentary photographs. The "papoose" in particular emerged as an icon of peaceful tribal life­­and a preview of the exotic sights that travelers could expect to see on tourist excursions to the west. At the same time, artists' new awareness of Indian youth was linked to the American public's call for reforms in the federal government's Indian policies during the 1880s and 1890s.

 

The New Scholar

Pictures of children in school and the lessons included in textbooks embodied American ideas about the privileges and responsibilities of a democratic government. Paintings and lithographs depicting school life tended to celebrate childhood freedoms, reveling in anarchic classrooms, happy truants, and the joys of recess frolics. Schoolbooks, on the other hand, were dominated by themes of regularity, industry, and obedience. The divide between artworks' rowdy egalitarianism and classroom text's reverence for tradition was a symptom of the nation's longstanding ambivalence about schooling. Americans often associated education with the high-falutin' habits of the upper crust. Many self-made citizens wore their lack of cultivation as a patriotic emblem­­proof of their contempt for Old World pomp and circumstance.

Nevertheless, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans across the country came to embrace the idea of public education and to believe that "common" schooling was the birthright of all children. They praised education as a great common denominator, one that had the power to bring into harmony the disparate voices of America's far-flung populace. At the same time, many citizens remained unconvinced that schools could fulfill their lofty mission of uniting the nation. They were also wary of new school-related taxes and the new powers the government had assumed to organize a nationwide school system.

Artists responded to the American public as it grappled with the subject of public education, offering audiences a peek inside the classrooms and schoolyards where country boys and girls, immigrant children, former slaves, and young tribes' people were learning arithmetic and reciting their ABCs. Their works helped to show that little scholars across the country were earning their right to claim the privileges of citizenship, and gave substance to the Founding Fathers' vision of a secure future for the nation.

 

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Resource Library.


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

Copyright 2006 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.