Puritan colonists believed that children were the inheritors of Adam and Eve's original sin and deserved harsh physical and psychological punishments.
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.
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.
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.
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.
<i>Crossing the Pasture</i> 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.
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.
William M. Harnett was a master of <i>trompe l’oeil</i> (“fool the eye”) technique in which he painted with such accuracy that his subjects appear real. <i>Attention, Company!</i> 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.
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.
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.