When Children Aren't Children

The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood
An exhibition at the University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley
August 23 - November 19, 1995

Despite their interest in directly observing the lives and behavior of real children, artists also continued to depict children as distinctly unchildlike. These images suggest a new vision of the child as something other than the playful, good-natured seat of innocence that the cult of childhood was already proposing. Instead, they describe the overall complexity and diversity of artistic options available to Georgian artists. Some are humorous, including works (such as Sir Joshua Reynolds's Master Crewe as Henry VIII) that show children aping the ways of adulthood-a subtle way of their safely mocking the adult world. Others represent the artist's imagining of the childhood of historical and mythological figures, such as John the Baptist and Hercules.

The most revealing of these pictures look at children in a sinister or sexually suggestive light, including the potential, and actual, sexual exploitation of children at the hands of adults. The innocence of children contrasts with the fundamental corruption of society and is itself brought into question. Many pictures, in fact, suggest the social contradictions of love, repression, and oppression within the same work. The familial embrace of the new child could be both cherishing and smothering.

Philip Mercier
Playing Soldier (The Dog's Education)
about 1744
Oil on canvas
50 x 39 3/8 in. (127 x 100 cm)
The Detroit Institute of Arts. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar B. Whitcomb

Sir Joshua Reynolds
The Infant Academy
Oil on canvas
44 7/8 x 56 in. (114 x 142 cm)
The Iveagh Bequest, KenwoodŠEnglish Heritage

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