Nationality, Modern Art and the Child in Late-Nineteenth Century Painting

In: Children and Childhood: Practices and Perspectives
Author: Emily C. Burns

Representations of children in late nineteenth-century American and French painting were coded images that drew from discourses of cultural nationalism and artistic modernism. Notions of the child were adopted as a metaphor for the United States within theories of the nation that understood national development as generational. I apply this reading to reconsider paintings of mothers and children by French and American artists including William Bouguereau, John Singer Sargent, Edwin Blashfield, Mary Cassatt, and Cecilia Beaux in the context of international study that imagined the American artist as a child to their French masters. Ideas of the child in a nationalist context were interwoven with the metaphor of the child in modernist art practice. Gustave Courbet, for example, adapted the child as a metaphor for the ideal modern artist with childhood’s perceived potential for fresh vision. Some American artists tapped these discourses of the child to declare their artistic separation from French prototypes. Meanwhile, other artists used the image of the child to allegorize their emulation of French models through representations of the lesson. Artists, like Beaux and Cassatt, used the child more subversively with non-narrative allegory to suggest an overgrown child who had metaphorically surpassed academic models.

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