Lisa N. Peters
Along with J. G. Brown’s The Coquette (ca. 1870s), the gallery lent Arthur B. Davies’s Children Playing (ca. 1902) to the exhibition, Children’s Pleasures: American Celebrations of Childhood, on view at the Hofstra University Museum, Hempstead (February 2-April 18, 2010) (see previous post). A member of the Eight, Davies diverged in his art from his colleagues. Whereas the others in the group—such as Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks—focused on recording their immediate responses to the dynamic qualities of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York life—as revealed especially in their views of bursting tenement districts and crowded public gathering places—Davies preferred to depict Arcadian landscapes frequented by idealized figures and expressing mythological themes. (Read the New York Times review on the exhibition by Benjamin Genocchio. PDF version)
Nonetheless, in several works of the early 1900s Davies portrayed contemporary subjects within an urban context. Among these are several including children, perhaps suggesting Davies’s sense of the young as capable of bridging the divide between the world of the moment and that of the imagination. Children Playing fits into this context, portraying a girl holding a harness worn by a boy, presumably her brother. The setting is possibly an urban park. The reclining figure beside the children seems to exist in a different space; she may represent their mother, whose simultaneous presence and distance suggests the way that parents of the era had become more child-centered than in the past, creating room for their children to play freely while keeping them within a protective reach. This phenomenon of the era is brought out by Donna R. Barnes, in her insightful essay in the Hofstra catalogue.
The caption in the catalogue on the painting drew my interest. It states of the work:
Perhaps the young blond boy in a harness is playing “pony” to his “charioteer,” the older girl holding the reins. All the children enjoy playing in this fanciful garden atmosphere.
The catalogue’s description makes sense. In a day when the horse-and-carriage ruled the streets of New York, and the wealthy showed off in their privately owned carriages on the drives of Central Park, it is reasonable that children would emulate this aspect of the adult world.
The presence of the harness made me wonder whether this a was among the offerings of the burgeoning toy industry that catered to the new idea in the era that children’s play should be encouraged. I was thus gratified to find a web image depicting a page of toy offerings from the Sears, Roebuck Inc. catalogue of Fall 1900, including an advertisement for “Toy Reins” in three variations, which closely approximate that in the painting—even the little bells on the shoulder straps in the ad may be seen in Davies’s image. The ad described No. 59144 as: “Made of fine-enameled cloth, 54 inches long, celluloid front piece and chiming bells. This is a very fine set and a bargain at the price. Price . . . . 50¢.”
In Davies’s painting, the girl stands with her feet apart and gazes toward us, her attitude like that of a privileged New Yorker hoping to be seen, while the boy plays the role of the horse watching the roadway. Davies’s image suggests that while playing light-heartedly, children also unconsciously emulated adult attitudes. The hazy atmosphere seems to fit this time of make believe. A similar sensibility is reflected in Davies’s Dancing Children (ca. 1902, Brooklyn Museum), in which girls in white dresses take part together in a dance, yet seem in different worlds.
In this respect, at least some of Davies’s works were not as fanciful as they might seem, demonstrating an observant eye toward life in early twentieth-century New York.
As an aside: variations of the harness are still being used by parents to gain peace of mind, but in my view they actually lead to worse behaviors when the child is released. However, I can certainly understand why parents would want to make use of them.