This exhibit is an attempt to show the manner in which depictions of childhood in art portray the innocence and carefree nature of childhood, as well as a representation of the nostalgia adults feel when remembering their own. There have been many representations of childhood throughout history, and from the 1700s to the 1900s, there has been little change. Children, especially boys, are continually portrayed in the outdoors, actively enjoying the freedom that childhood brings. The faces of the children are all depicted in the same manner, naturally, with round faces with the gentle curves of youth. They have not yet been hardened by the world, and the soft features of their faces serve to emphasize the fact. Seeing children in art is something the world has become quite accustomed to. It is very uncommon to walk through an art museum without seeing any sort of representation of a child. It is an idea that we cannot escape: childhood in its purest form is magical in its innocence, wide-eyed wonder, and the ease of carriage that defines the energy and freedom of a child. To truly capture the exuberance of a child is a feat to be mastered indeed. Those who have captured it have often won the hearts of their viewers, for nothing touches the emotions quite so much as a child, as all, no matter what their age, are able to relate and understand the art as part of their own experience.
Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip, ca. 1872, oil on canvas, 50.41
This is an active composition which depicts eight young boys playing an energizing game in what seems to be a schoolyard. This painting has an air of nostalgia about it, as it conveys the joy of childhood along with the remembrance of old school days. Very much an action piece, this painting shows the fluid movement of children at play while still conveying the stillness they must endure when they must commit themselves to their studies. This stillness is more implied rather than seen, as the schoolhouse is in the background of the composition, looming as if to say that playtime must soon come to an end. The adult will see this keenly, as they have already experienced the end of their childish freedom from worry and care and now must commit to their adult responsibilities.
Marie Jeanne Boucher, After François Boucher; Two Boys Sleeping Besides a Tree, ca. 1750–1760, Etching, 60.623.27
This etching perfectly encapsulates the carefree nature of children during the summer holidays. While it is simply a monochrome etching, Boucher captures the sprawling looseness of young boys lounging in the sunlight, having taken a break from what seems to be a trek through the country. The boys’ bodies are loose as they are draped over the roots of a tree. They are free to sleep and rest from their endeavors, without having to worry about what comes next, something which many adults reminisce about with longing. The general air of this etching is one of leisure, as the dozing boys seem to convey with every inch of their bodies that they have all the time in the world. The slow pace of summer exudes from this piece, with neither of the boys showing any sign of movement; now or potentially.
Winslow Homer, Boys in a Dory, ca. 1873, Watercolor washes and gouache over graphite underdrawing on medium rough textured white wove paper, 2001.608.1
In this piece, four boys are sitting in a dory. Two boys are rowing with two others sitting near and on the tip of the dory as they gaze at their surroundings. Something about the water calls to young boys. It holds adventure for them, the promise of a fantastic journey. The day is sunny, with the haze of summer which seems to completely block any color from the sky through the waves of warmth. While there are larger, fancier boats in the distance the dory does not seem diminished in any way because of its occupants. The boys are on a journey, not simply to their next adventure, but to manhood. The watercolor scheme of this painting seems to be mostly neutral, but looking closer, the viewer can see that there are colors hidden if they would only choose to look.
Janet Scudder, Frog Fountain, ca. 1901, cast 1906, Bronze, 06.967
This is an enchanting piece, consisting of a little boy who appears to be dancing among frogs in a small pond. The joyful look on his face is evidence to the pure, innocent bliss he is experiencing as he prances among the creatures. The nostalgia of this piece is gripping, as adult viewers will realize that they will never again be able to feel joy so uninhibited by the cares and woes of the world. It is sweet to see this type of connection between boys and animals. The frogs are evidence to the nature of boys to bring home the slimy and wiggling creatures of which mother does not approve, and the effortless joy they find in the little creatures.
John Sloan, Boys Sledding, ca. 1920, Etching, 26.30.67
This etching is alive with the energy of youth. The crowd of young boys is clamoring and tumbling around each other as they prepare for the thrill of the slide. The faces of the boisterous crowd are lit up with such grins as only boys with unlimited energy can give. This piece proves that boys did not only play outside in the summer but would flee from the confines of the indoors as often as possible, even in winter. The cold of winter did not hinder the energy available for their games, however, but often provided new ways in which to play. Winter sports such as sledding and skating offered not only adventure but speed: a perfect combination.
George Luks, Boy with Baseball, ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 54.10.2
While this may seem like an ordinary portrait of a boy, it is more than meets the eye. Unlike a formal portrait commissioned by parents, this painting seems to show the boy as he is, rather than how someone wishes him to be seen. The boy is in his play clothes, and, surprisingly enough, is slouching. He rests easily on his bench with his baseball resting at his side, a picture of the quiet boys are so often deemed incapable of. While he is quietly sitting, posing for his picture, the baseball says it all. The boy runs, he leaps, he dives for the ball whatever the cost, for that is the game of baseball. He is quiet… for now. But the baseball implies that as soon as he is free, he will rush back to the game that has been calling to him, ready to play like there is no tomorrow.
Frank W. Benson, Two Boys, ca. 1926, oil on canvas, 27.61
This painting is a depiction of the artist’s grandsons as they prepare to launch their toy sailboat into the lake. There is another aspect of boyhood in this painting which so often makes it into the adventure stories for boys: the faithful dog. Boys seem to fit so well with puppies and dogs of their own that it has proved to be an inspiration for many artists in their work. The figures give ear to the boyish aspect of looking for adventure and fun as they gaze out across the lake as they steel themselves for the launch of their little vessel. The use of lighting in this piece shows the lighthearted feel of the painting as the sun shines down on the two boys and their faithful companion. Benson shows that there is one aspect of childhood that need never leave. Even as the boys grow older the dog will remain by their side. Companionship will always remain, and this painting truly captures that sentiment.