‘Childhood in American Art’: Historical glimpses of youth at the Benton

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Despite the arrival of Thanksgiving break and the impending atmosphere of all things festive, for some of us, getting into the holiday groove is a difficult task. After one blissful week of freedom and food, an extra fortnight of classes awaits and after that — death (or finals, depending on the way you look at it). In short, there’s a clear need for some child-like cheer to revive us all. 

Thankfully, the Benton Museum’s versatility as both an art space and a zen space is the perfect remedy. Its current exhibition, “Childhood in American Art” takes viewers on a youthful journey through 19th and early 20th century America, where the historical contexts of toys, furniture, books and fashion are depicted on display. 

As it turns out, certain toys like the Griselda Doll (c. 1840) were commonly owned by children from upper-class families. This was also before child labor laws were regulated, and children who worked in factories would ironically be the ones making toys for upper-class children. Unlike the infamous line of Cabbage Patch Kids and somewhat terrifying animatronic baby dolls we’re familiar with today, 19th century dolls, including the Griselda Doll, usually portrayed adult women.

Additionally, the child-sized furniture in the exhibition is particularly difficult to ignore, and arguably steals most of the attention as some of the larger, three-dimensional pieces of the collection. Many of the pieces are chairs, while a few are rocking chairs — a very characteristic facet of childhood. Nancy Stula, the Benton’s executive director, commented on the inclusion of these pieces, as well as the prominence of children’s chairs throughout history. 

“The furniture is amazing, all of those children’s chairs,” Stula said. “And in fact, just last week on the 11th, on Veterans Day, we had a lecture by Arthur Liverant on children’s chairs. He brought in 28 children’s chairs, so we had a museum full of chairs for this talk. And the chairs dated from — the earliest was [from] 1690 and then the latest one was I think from the 1940s, which showed the first use of plywood. So, I agree with you, I think the chairs are fascinating.” 

A number of children’s books are also part of the collection, one of which is “Home Book” by J. A. Vincent (1886). Enlarged versions of its pages are scattered around the gallery, appearing sporadically on the walls in Barnes and Noble-esque fashion. The book served as an all-in-one textbook for schoolhouses, where children of all ages would acquire their education from the same source. 

Alongside “Home Book,” primers were a great educational resource during the 18th and early 19th centuries. These textbooks, encased in a glass display, were used to teach young children how to read. 

“We borrowed those from the Dodd Center, from the archives, and it was really interesting to see how those evolved through time and what they looked like — the fact that they were so tiny and so basic,” Stula said. “You know, basically [being] in one-room schoolhouses where all ages were gathered and each student just studied their primer, I thought was really interesting.” 

Out of all these aspects, the most peculiar historical takeaway had to do with children’s fashion. The oil portrait titled “Charles Gordon and his Sibling” (c. 1852), which illustrates two children posed side by side, offers a vague explanation of its subjects, as it is left unclear which one is Gordon and which gender his sibling is. Hairstyles and clothing were gender-neutral for children back then, a notion unexpected of an era as traditional as the 19th century. However, the short hair and androgynous attire sported by both siblings leave their identities ambiguous. 

According to Stula, the lack of gender indication was another detail that captivated her. 

“What I also found the most interesting was that it was so difficult to tell gender in these 19th century portraits,” Stula said. “And to confuse matters to contemporary eyes was the fact that pink was considered the color that boys would wear and blue was reserved for girls. But in general, they really didn’t care if gender was distinguished, which I thought was kind of cool. It was more that they just had to identify them as children versus adults and not paying much attention to girl versus boy.” 

Although from a personal standpoint, the portrait appeared a bit strange and borderline sinister, “Charles Gordon and his Sibling” was actually the piece that inspired Stula to arrange the exhibition in the first place. 

“That was the one that always stuck in my mind, that’s owned by the Benton,” Stula said. “Whenever I would go down into our storage, I would see it and that’s really what made me think that I would like to do an exhibition on childhood.” 

To view the entire collection, feel free to visit the ‘Childhood in American Art’ exhibition at the Benton any time between now (excluding Thanksgiving week) and Dec. 18. For more information, check out https://benton.uconn.edu/

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