American Childhood

Curator Shirley Reece-Hughes shares how American childhood is portrayed in the Amon Carter's collection

Portrait of Mother and Five Children (ca. 1825-1850) by UnknownAmon Carter Museum of American Art

Perspectives toward childhood have changed dramatically in
American life from the early nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries. 

A wide range of paintings, prints, and photographs from the Amon Carter’s collection vividly reflect how children were perceived, reared, and celebrated over the course of those 150 years.

Portrait of Emma Louise Koser (1853) by Attributed to Jacob MaentelAmon Carter Museum of American Art

Puritan colonists believed that children were the inheritors of Adam and Eve's original sin and deserved harsh physical and psychological punishments.

Girl with Cat (ca. 1814) by Ammi PhillipsAmon Carter Museum of American Art

The philosophers John Locke (1632–1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), however, changed these views by proposing that youth were innocent and better able to learn through the consequences of their actions.

Their philosophies prompted parents to adopt more tolerant views of their offspring. Softer, more sentimental portraits of children appeared reflecting this novel belief in the purity of youth.

Bo-Peep (1872) by Eastman JohnsonAmon Carter Museum of American Art

In the nineteenth century, Americans recognized childhood as its own distinct phase of life supported by an abundance of books devoted to raising children. Scenes of everyday life rose in popularity with children often featured as the key figures.

The Flute (before 1859) by Francis William EdmondsAmon Carter Museum of American Art

Whether artists depicted them as playful tots, hardworking
youths, obedient followers, or slightly mischievous scamps, children in art
represented the hope and promise of the country’s future, especially following
the Civil War.  

Painted on the eve of the Civil War, Francis Edmonds lovingly captured an older white child playing the flute for two younger black boys who listen intently to his music. The quiet dignity of this shared moment suggests Edmonds’s call for peace at a formidable juncture in history.

Crossing the Pasture (1871) by Winslow HomerAmon Carter Museum of American Art

The most popular childhood subject of the postwar era was the country boy, who symbolized America’s lost innocence and provided a vicarious escape from the harsh realities of modern urban life.

Crossing the Pasture reveals the public’s desire for scenes of country boys, but the painting is also a reflection of Winslow Homer’s own cherished memories of his youth with his brothers. His wholesome country boys are an idealization of brotherhood. Standing together against the green hills, the boys act as redemptive symbols of hope for the country’s united future after a war that pitted brother against brother.

Seesaw—Gloucester, Massachusetts. (1874) by Winslow HomerAmon Carter Museum of American Art

Homer spent the summer of 1873 in the seaside village of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where his observations inspired this scene of boys playing on a makeshift see-saw and girls engaging in a string game of cat’s cradle.

Quietly capturing the spirit of carefree youth, Homer created a world immune to the ills of civilization.

Attention, Company! (1878) by William Michael HarnettAmon Carter Museum of American Art

William M. Harnett was a master of trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) technique in which he painted with such accuracy that his subjects appear real. Attention, Company! is his only known figural artwork.

In contrast to images of white youths enjoying the freedom of play, Harnett’s portrayal of a black boy playing soldier, who gazes at us with seriousness, implies the child's undue sense of adult responsibility.

[Charlie McBride], November 1913 (1913) by Lewis HineAmon Carter Museum of American Art

By the mid-1880s, due to the rapid expansion of industrialization,
thousands of children were employed in factories and other labor-intensive industries. 

Photographer Lewis Hine captured working youths with a directness and immediacy that provided a catalyst for the enforcement of child labor laws.

Here Hine captured a twelve-year-old boy named Charlie McBride working for the Miller & Vidor Lumber Company as he removed wood slabs from a moving chute with an exposed, heavy chain.

Parson Weems' Fable (1939) by Grant WoodAmon Carter Museum of American Art

In the 1900s, more liberal attitudes towards child rearing
and the advent of diverse styles allowed artists greater freedom in exploring
childhood themes.  

Here Grant Wood playfully interpreted Mason Locke Weems’s legendary fable about George Washington’s inability to tell a lie to his father after chopping down the cherry tree.

By depicting young George with the first president’s adult head from Gilbert Stuart’s portrait on the one-dollar bill, Wood made the boy recognizable to a wide audience, but also expressed the idea that fables, as well as paintings, are based on imagination.

Credits: Story

All artworks from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Written by Shirley Reece-Hughes, associate curator of paintings and sculpture, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Produced by Jana Hill, digital engagement manager, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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