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American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Childhood in 19th-Century America

by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the United States grew from an infant republic to a powerful nation with a prominent place in world affairs. The exhibition American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America provides a window into the everyday world of families, children's pastimes, and the routines of the schoolhouse, and demonstrates how portrayals of the nation's youngest citizens took on an important symbolic role in the country's journey toward maturity. By highlighting the themes of transformation -- urbanization, war, technology, territorial expansion -- and addressing some of the most important issues in nineteenth-century America -- the agrarian ideals of democracy and the definition of manhood; the roles assigned to the nation's future wives and mothers; the issues of slavery, immigration, and the situation of Native Americans; and education -- American ABC provides insight into the development of the United States.
One of the most comprehensive shows in recent decades to deal with American childhood, this exhibition features major works by such American artists as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, Lilly Martin Spencer, and many others. Also on view is a wide variety of illustrated children's books from the period and materials such as needlework, children's crockery, and illustrated magazines.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Snap the Whip, 1872. Oil on canvas. 12 x 20 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Christian A. Zabriskie, 1950.

One of Homer's best known paintings, this work is part of a series of eight paintings of country children at school that the artist executed between the end of the Civil War and the national centennial in 1876. Frowned upon by urban schools, the game of snap the whip in Homer's construction represents the freedom and abundant liberties of country life, as well as the idea of national independence that was on every American's mind in the centennial decade. Snap the Whip also celebrates the optimism and sense of energetic renewal that many Americans shared in the years after the end of the terrible conflict of the Civil War. The game, which worked by harnessing players' strength, speed, and momentum, functioned as a powerful symbol of the nation's accomplishments over the course of the century.

The presence of the red schoolhouse in the background, as well as the short shadows indicating a sun high in the sky, identifies the scene as a moment in the school's noon break. That the boys will soon be called to return to their lessons foreshadows their imminent passage to adulthood, which lends a sense of poignancy to their joyful but brief recreation.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Elizabeth with a Dog, circa 1871. Oil on canvas, 13-3/4 x 17 inches. San Diego Museum of Art, California. Museum purchase and a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Edwin S. Larsen.

Thomas Eakins challenged accepted notions of portraiture and genre painting over the course of his career, frequently engaging established conventions and imprinting his own signature upon them. Here Eakins adopted the convention of the "girl-with-pets" motif that made allusions to the domestication and the taming of society expected of its young girls. Eakins's handling of the subject is distinctive, however, since it imbues the young woman with a power and independence beyond that of contemporary depictions of young American girls. Elizabeth fixes her dog with a forceful look as she points her finger in a gesture of command. Sitting on the floor and wearing a hat that echoes her poodle's fluffy topknot, she is equated with the world of animals and nature, while the keen intelligence of her gaze sets her apart from the docile creature who obeys her, as well as from society's expectations of female passivity.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Winslow Homer (1835-1910), The Watermelon Boys, circa 1876. Oil on canvas, 24-1/8 x 38-1/8 inches. Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York. Gift of Charles Savage Homer, Jr.

This work is one of several by Homer that explored the situation of African-American children in the postwar environment. This painting takes the subject of black children adapting to new circumstances one step further, showing a pair of black boys in an easy friendship with a white companion. The three youngsters feast on fruit, a theme that was ubiquitous in nineteenth-century representations of the country boy.

The watermelon had functioned as an emblem of blackness in the United States since the first half of the century, and it featured prominently in racist depictions that proliferated after the Civil War. Although the watermelon was an icon of racism, the inclusion of the white child in the group raised the work above the level of mere stereotype. The painting boldly introduced the concept of racial integration, an issue that was a minefield of controversy in the postbellum period. Setting the scene in the realm of childhood, however, disconnected it from prevalent fears about interracial marriages, the potential for black domination of the labor market, and other scenarios that played on white imaginations in the postwar period. The verdant scene is Eden-like, with the fruit they share symbolic of an impending fall from grace. Sitting next to a long fence that bisects the landscape, the white and black boys who are "going halves" on the watermelon will grow into manhood in a society divided along racial lines.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), Ragamuffin, circa 1869. Oil on canvas, 11-1/2 x 6-3/8 inches. Private collection.

The admiration Johnson shows for this benign ragamuffin is in part connected to the pride that many Americans took in the nation's lack of social hierarchies. The ragamuffin as a type was a suitably egalitarian counterpart to the children of the well-to-do frequently represented in paintings and other imagery of the period. The physical weakness and snobbery of children brought up in the hothouse atmosphere of upper-class city homes was also a persistent theme in contemporary popular literature. Johnson's hale ragamuffin -- strong, sturdy, facing the viewer directly -- tapped into the disdain for artifice and humbug that many had come to believe was a special feature of the national character.

Grace Carpenter Hudson's Little Mendocino was selected for one of the coveted spots in the California Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The painting was so popular that it had to be moved to a central location in the building to accommodate the fair-going crowds who stopped in front of it.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937), Little Mendocino, 1892. Oil on canvas, 36 x 26 inches. California Historical Society,
San Francisco.
Hudson divulged that she intentionally made the baby cry to heighten the emotional tenor of this scene of an infant in a papoose propped up against a redwood tree. We can gain some insight into her motives through the understanding of the political situation of Western Indians at that time. For decades following the Gold Rush of 1848, the Indians of the West were slaughtered in a merciless extermination campaign. By the 1880s, a series of reforms were ushered in to mitigate the slaughter. Under the Indian Appropriation Act, all Indians were made wards of the state, and efforts were made to assimilate them into mainstream (white) American culture. Children were often removed from their parents and the tribal environment and sent to specialized boarding schools. Reformers asserted that through such extremes the Indians would be able to skip over the centuries of social evolution usually required to reach what they perceived as "advanced" civilization. Little Mendocino reduced a century's worth of transgressions into one tiny bundle of woe. It implied that redemption was at hand and seemed to promise that the nation's native people would soon be able to share the same rights and privileges as the Anglo citizens at the fair.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America by Claire Perry with Zachary Ross and Brynn Forte
Francis William Edmonds (1806-1863), The New Scholar, 1845. Oil on canvas, 27 x 34 inches. Manoongian Collection, Detroit, Michigan.

In this critique of the prevailing educational methods, a new schoolboy -- the reluctant "new scholar" -- clutches at his mother's skirt in fear of the schoolmaster, who looms over his young charge with a whip held behind his back. In the classroom seen at the left of the composition, two boys, momentarily free from the oversight of their tyrannical taskmaster, attend to their schoolwork with lackluster enthusiasm. Before newer, gentler theories of education and discipline were advanced at mid-century, schoolmasters were often portrayed holding whips, the instruments of discipline and authority. Here, Edmonds confronts the status quo of child education and discipline, seen by mid-century as too strict and potentially debilitating to students. The subject may be autobiographical in nature; in a letter sent to fellow artist Asher Durand, Edmonds told of an episode from his youth when he was flogged for making a satirical sketch of his schoolmaster. The New Scholar was issued as an engraving twice by the American Art-Union, in 1847 and 1850, a testament to the popularity of the subject in the period.

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America is on view at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, from November 2, 2006, through January 7, 2007. A companion book, Young America, by Claire Perry, published by Yale University Press, expands on the themes of the exhibition. American ABC was organized by the Iris and 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. For more information visit www.portlandmuseum.org or call 207.775.6148.

Claire Perry is curator of American Art at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University, and the organizer of the exhibition. Zachary Ross is a doctoral student in art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Brynn Forte received her B.A. in American Studies from Stanford University in 2005.

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