The Flower of Youth: 19th Century Portraits of Children

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Picking Flowers, ca. 1845. Attributed to Samuel Miller (ca. 1870-1853). Gift of Stephen C. Clark. Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Attitudes toward childhood changed radically in 19th-century America. Whereas in the 17th century the Puritan conception of the child was of a miniature adult beset by innate evil, societal attitudes gradually underwent a positive evolution. Under the influence of the European Enlightenment and the American Revolution, a new appreciation of childhood emerged and flourished. A belief in the innocence of youth supplanted earlier prejudices, and an interest in child development became a predominant issue of American popular debate. The nineteenth century’s preoccupation with childhood culminated in the twentieth century’s indulgent veneration of childhood and our youth-centered society.

America’s folk art is the visual manifestation of these profound societal changes. Always keenly sensitive to the nuances of their culture, artists have traditionally expressed their conception of the society in which they lived through the vehicle of their work. Their insights allow us to glimpse the true fabric of early American life, to understand dimensions too often obscured by cold facts and figures in history books. No one speaks more eloquently for America’s heritage than the folk artist.