Age of Innocence

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

In the late twentieth century we tend to assume innocence to be an attribute of childhood. But inhabitants of Georgian Britain, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, discussed the basic nature of children with great intensity. Starting from views of the child as a creature of innate evil (a doctrine inherited from Calvin), philosophers of the period increasingly saw the child as an innocent creature-innocent, at least, until corrupted by society. Beginning with the writings of the English philosopher John Locke around 1700 through the publication of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influential writings on childhood in the 1760s, a great philosophical shift took place. By the end of the period, the child became allied with the natural world, and childhood, a period of improbably extreme innocence.

Visual representations of the child reflect these changing views. Artists increasingly depicted children outdoors, often close to animals and the larger natural world. Moving from artificiality to action, from stereotype to individuality, artists portrayed increasingly real-looking children. Sir Joshua Reynolds's Master Hare (1788) exerts a powerful presence in a landscape setting, in command of the world around him, embodying the new idea of the child.

Strickland Lowry
1737?-about 1785
The Bateson Family
Oil on canvas
64 7/16 x 104 in. (163.7 x 264 cm)
Ulster Museum, Belfast

Johann Zoffany
The Blunt Children
Oil on canvas
30 1/4 x 48 3/4 in. (76.8 x 123.8 cm)
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Explore this image in our Self-Guided Tour for Young People

Arthur W. Devis
Emily and George Mason with their Ayahs
about 1794-95
Oil on canvas
39 x 42 1/2 in. (99 x 108 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Benjamin West
Sketch for A Group of Five Children
Chalk on paper
9 7/8 x 13 1/4 in. (25.1 x 33.6 cm)
The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Allan Ramsay
Sketch of a Dead Child
Oil on canvas
12 5/8 x 10 3/4 in. (32 x 27.3 cm)
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

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