October 2008 Issue
A Dayton Art Institute exhibit explores the evolving depiction of children in history.
Children should be seen and not heard.
It’s a well-worn expression that –– even when said by an adult in a teasing tone –– is bound to elicit eye rolls and disdainful looks from youngsters.
But some youth in Dayton have definitely gotten their revenge.
Granted, visitors won’t actually hear a word spoken by the kids depicted in 50 paintings at the Dayton Art Institute’s “Children in American Art” exhibit, running through January 4. But from the cultural values conveyed by a severe-looking child in one 17th-century portrait, to the emotional struggle expressed by a little boy in a Civil-War-era work, the children in the exhibit speak volumes.
“All of these pieces stand on their own as great art,” says curator Will South. “But these artists also found ways to tell subtle and succinct stories by representing these children in such an interesting manner.”
Of course, the artists who created the images, which date from 1670 through World War II, knew how to produce compelling works. Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley –– the DAI exhibit features a who’s who of American painters.
But it’s the children who steal the show.
Take, for example, “Robert Gibbs at 4 ½ Years,” a rare, 17th-century study in youthful austerity, as portrayed by an artist known only as the Freake-Gibbs Painter. The serious boy, standing with one hand propped on his hip and the other holding a pair of gloves, couldn’t appear less childlike. Which was precisely the point.
“That painting is very typical of the Colonial era: very stiff and severe,” says South. “For Puritans, life was about being serious and disciplined, so when representations of children do occur in that era, they’re stripped of playfulness. They appear as little adults.”
For visitors to the exhibit, that might beg the question: Why would Puritans even commission something as seemingly frivolous as a painting?
“For Puritans, things that were useful and practical were good,” explains South. “A painting that showed you your proper role and how you should behave as a young person was considered useful.”
While that artwork may have been intended to serve as a role model to other children of the time, the youth in “Writing to Father” was created purely to capture the emotion of an era. The 1863 painting by Eastman Johnson shows a little boy sitting at a writing table –– his legs barely long enough to reach the floor –– intensely focused on a letter for his father, who’s away fighting in the Civil War. The pensive look on the child’s face, coupled with such symbolic touches as the blue Confederate cap subtly perched on a seat across from him, make the painting South’s favorite.
“The serious nature of that boy comes across as so heartfelt in that work,” he says. “It’s painted with a real tenderness and honesty; it’s one of the more dramatic narratives of something that’s happened to a child –– and that still happens to children whose parents are at war. The viewer knows that it’s very likely that the father never returned home.
“It’s one of the more honest depictions of what a boy would actually do in the midst of a war,” says South. “He just wants his daddy to come home.”
Dayton Art Institute
456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton, 937/223-5277.www.daytonartinstitute.org
Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Admission: adults, $14; senior citizens and students, $12; youth ages 7 to 18, $6; six and under, free.