Our sons and daughters start even.” – Marion Harland’s Eve’s Daughters; or, Common Sense for Maid, Wife, and Mother, 1882
When I take in a truly remarkable exhibition I want to shout about it from the rooftops. So stand back, because I am about to shout—–GO SEE Angels and Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art NOW EXTENDED THROUGH JANUARY 20th at the Newark Museum. As an artist-woman-mother, this exhibit was a true awakening. So inspired, I started rifling through my own old family photos (pictured above) looking for symbolic images of dolls, boys in dresses and girls in white.
A major traveling loan exhibition, the show features approximately 80 masterworks by John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Cecilia Beaux and William Merritt Chase and is divided into nine categories from Childhood Androgyny to Tomboys and Mischievous Little Girls through Adolescence: Rite of Passage. Each work is accompanied by an interesting quote about girl/womanhood from the day scrolled onto the wall.
The American girl is placed upon a pedestal and each offers worship according to his abilities, the artist among the rest.” – Samuel Isham, The History of American Painting, 1905
The exhibit begins with androgynous images of boys and girls that appeared equal on canvas up until about the age of 4-5 years old . Through the early 20th century, before breeching, young boys would wear a dress to reduce accidents during “toilet” training (since lifting a dress is easier for a child to manage). During the time of breeching (when the boy was to now dress in breeches or pants) his hair was also cut short. We have to look for the artist symbols to know which is a girl and which is a boy. The girl hold a strawberry over her womb and wears a necklace. The boy holds a hammer.
“Mother said real flowers were the prettiest ornament for a young girl.” – Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, 1868–69
Viewing the artwork can transport you on a very personal journey, as the images for both men, women as well as children, remind us of our own mothers, sisters, aunts, wives and daughters. Looking at images of women holding flowers or dolls we then learn what the artist was trying to state with these symbols of a girl with a particular flower, doll or pet,.
I hail from a long line of very capable tough women. The females in my family fixed plumbing, cut wood and nursed babies. I laughed looking through my old family photos while the early portraits were traditional with the boys in black and the girls in white. The later, more candid pictures showed images of the girls and the boys as equals.
“I am not afraid of storms as I am learning to sail my ship” – Louisa May Alcott
Slowly walking through the exhibit the viewer explores symbolic images from a doll being held tightly to one that is later abandoned for a coming-of-age social engagement. There are social climbing young women, working girls, and of course girls that just want to have fun. The images of what we are suppose to be are juxtaposed with the images of who we really truly are: Innocent, awkward and capable. We dress in frilly frocks, then rip them trying to cross a creek slipping on stones falling — and laughing.
In this exhibit we view likenesses of ourselves on the walls and will often smile in remembering our own childhoods and ponder how we will we artfully continue our own journey through life as both Angels and Tomboys.
Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art
Where: Newark Museum,
49 Washington St., Newark
When: Through Jan. 6. Wednesdays to Fridays, noon to 5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Adults, $10; children, seniors and students, $6. For more information, call (973) 596-6550 or visit newarkmuseum.org.