Lisa N. Peters
Children’s Pleasures: American Celebrations of Childhood, an exhibition on view at Hofstra University Museum, Emily Lowe Gallery, Hempstead, New York, from February 2 to April 18, 2010, addresses the fascinating subject of images of American children from the colonial era through the present, and how they reflect changing attitudes toward children, and especially toward children’s play. Accompanying the exhibition is a scholarly catalogue, with essays by Brown University history professor Howard P. Chudacoff, author of Children at Play: An American History (2008, NYU), and by curator Donna R. Barnes, Ed.D., professor of foundations, leadership, and policy studies at Hofstra University’s School of Education, Health, and Human Services. In the show and catalogue, the works are divided thematically and the catalogue provides short descriptive commentaries on each. By contrast with the lengthy entries often appearing in museum catalogues, that range broadly over artists’ careers, each of these is succinct, directly addressing the subject of a work and providing a starting point for further discussion. (Read the New York Times review on the exhibition by Benjamin Genocchio. PDF version)
Lent to the show by Spanierman Gallery, J. G. Brown’s The Coquette (ca. 1870s) falls into the thematic grouping entitled “The Child Portrayed” (also loaned to the exhibition, A.B. Davies Children Playing (ca.1900). The commentary in the catalogue reads: “Wearing a beautifully starched white dress, this pre-teenage girl pins a flower to her hair. Will attention to her appearance allow her to flirt?” The painting suggests that just such a thought might have been on the subject’s mind. Emerging into a dark wooded glade, having left the sunlit path behind her that perhaps represents her childhood, the girl seems poised for the unknown of adolescence. While her white dress suggests her innocence, she awkwardly reaches up with both hands to try to position the flower without the benefit of a mirror, demonstrating the self-consciousness that goes along with this coming-of-age moment.
The charge of sentimentality that has often been leveled at Brown’s work has obscured the degree to which he was an astute observer of social identity and of the intersection between the private and public persona.
For a previous post on Brown, click here.