Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Art review: Flagler's 'Mother's Pearls' a fascinating look at childhood

Little Miss Hone (1824), by Samuel F.B. Morse.

By Katie Deits

PALM BEACH -- A current exhibition at the Flagler Museum offers visitors an opportunity to see exquisitely executed paintings of children and also to learn something about the changing nature of the American family over the past centuries.

A Mother’s Pearls: Children in American Paintings, which runs through April 19, also is perhaps the preeminent collection of pre-20th century American painting, according to its curator, Tracy Kamerer. The exhibit, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, has been seen in only two other cities, she said.

Before the 19th century, paintings of children were more about showing the heirs to the family fortune in a manner that depicted their status or future role in society. Young girls are dressed in rich satin, and they hold precious pets or expensive objects as they sit on ornate furniture that displays their family's wealth.

Portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall (1758),
by John Singleton Copley.

In Portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, painted about 1758 by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), the young ladies look feminine, sophisticated and well-mannered, but also stilted. One senses that in these snug adult-style dresses they are less than comfortable, but at the time, youngsters were expected to be reserved and quiet.

At the time Copley painted the Royall portrait, he was scarcely 20 years old, self-taught from books and observing other artists, as there were no art academies in the colonies. He also was strongly influenced by English painter Joseph Blackburn, who imported a rococo painting style and painted portraits of many Boston wealthy families.

Copley abandoned his homeland just before the American Revolution to live in England, and after emigrating, he painted a lovely portrait of his family that also is featured in the exhibition. There is a playful and affectionate feeling between the family members, creating movement and a dynamic diagonal composition.

With the beginning of the 19th century, there came a greater interest in childhood, thanks in part to the work of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who "dismissed the idea that children were sinful and promoted the value of childhood," Kamerer said.

Dismissal of School on an October Afternoon (1845),
by Henry Inman.

“The thought was that children should run and play and be wild, and by extension, adults should learn to be more like children," she said. "Children are closer to nature, creatures of God and nature.”

In Dismissal of School on an October Afternoon (1845) by Henry Inman (1801-1846), children enjoy romping outside as the Ichabod Crane-like schoolmaster locks the schoolhouse door. Positioned on the left quarter of the painting, apart from the white children, a young African-American child looks on.

Tire Jumping in Front of My Window (1936-47),
by Allan Rohan Crite.

Only one African-American painter is represented in the exhibit. Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) was well-known for his paintings of street life in Boston's South End, and here his gritty work can be seen in Tire Jumping in Front of My Window (1936-1947), featuring numerous children engaged in urban play.

Kamerer said along with the paradigm shift in how American culture considered children came a fashion for collecting art of children who were not in one's family. “The value of the picture was for the sweetness of the child," she said.

An example is Little Miss Hone (1824), in which an impish, rosy-cheeked little girl plays dress-up with her cat. It was painted by Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), who began his career as a painter but eventually abandoned it to invent the telegraph.

The Colgate Family (1866), by Johannes A.S. Oertel.

Several paintings of the Civil War depict children, including a small painting by Winslow Homer of a young soldier. After the war, some art reflected hope for the country and the future, as in The Colgate Family (1866), by the German-born Johannes Oertel, which shows the industrialist Samuel Colgate playing with his children in the parlor of the family's opulent home.

But the end of the war also saw more Americans move to cities to work in factories, with an attendant increase in pollution and a greater, more obvious concentration of the poor and hungry. Still, street urchins were painted as hardworking, clean and well-fed, a reflection of the desire to offer Horatio Alger-style hope to viewers.

Two visions of late 19th-century American childhood can be seen in Tuckered Out: The Shoeshine Boy (1888) by John George Brown (1831-1913) , and John Singer Sargent's portrait of a little rich boy, Robert de Cevrieux (1879). “Reality was OK, but people wanted to have a sense of optimism," Kamerer said.

Caresse Maternelle (1902), by Mary Cassatt.

The 20th century also offers good examples of painted childhood. Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) captures an embrace between a mother and her child in Caresse Maternelle (1902). With her expansive brushstrokes and sketchy style, Cassatt expresses movement, and brings the focus of the painting to the affectionate faces, almost as if she had taken a snapshot with a camera.

The next-to-last painting in the exhibit, The Artist’s Daughter in a Blue Gown (1944), is by Milton Avery (1885-1965), who has been labeled the American Matisse for his simplicity of line and form, and this tender painting shows why that is.

The Artist's Daughter in a Blue Gown (1944), by Milton Avery.

The exhibit, which occupies four galleries on the second floor of the Flagler Museum on Palm Beach, is well-designed, with rooms painted in cheerful colors reminiscent of a happy childhood. Each painting has a detailed description next to it, commenting on its historical and artistic significance and also offering interesting anecdotes.

“Everybody who’s anybody in American art up through the 19th century is in this exhibit," said Kamerer, and that's more than enough reason not to want to miss this fascinating, rewarding exhibit.

A Mother's Pearls: Children in American Paintings runs through April 19 at the Flagler Museum. The exhibit is free with admission to the museum, which is $15 for adults, $8 for ages 13-18, $3 ages 6-12, and free for children under 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 12-5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 655-2833 or visit for more information.

Tracy Kamerer, curator of A Mother's Pearls.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

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