The manner a society relates to children is telling for its economic and cultural level, in other words, for its developmental stage. A liberal society will tend to be more empowering towards its children, whereas a conservative society will focus on the obedience of children.
This simple idea is clearly expressed by the children portraits displayed in the small exhibition dedicated to childhood in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, located in Bentonville, NW Arkansas, USA. The few works picked up here to emphasize this idea show the slow but striking passage in American society from the idea of children as cute status symbols to the concept of children as independent intelligent beings.
In depicting the adorable Lady Mary Beauclerk in her white muslin dress and capotain sugarloaf type of hat, James Earl, an American born painter, portrayed the status of British aristocracy of Puritan leanings, at the end of the eighteenth century. Similarly, Horace Bundy in his early nineteenth-century portrait of Jane Clay, a representative of a New Hampshire family, illustrates the learning tradition of an upper-class family. Later on, the second half of the nineteenth-century Portrait of a Girl and her Dog in a Grape Arbor by Susan Catherine Waters shows the same symbols of class and family (e.g. obvious in the girl`s outfit), but somewhat sweetened by the depiction of the close bond between the girl and her pet dog.
Joseph Decker`s end of the nineteenth-century collection of palette portraits* of boys eating berries, smoking, or during their visit at the dentist, represents a marked break with the past manners of portrayal. The modern sensitivity is prefigured here in the portraits` tendency to depict children in the course of independent if not scandalous actions.
The early twentieth century continues these attempts by focusing on the personality of the child. This 1915 photo of a Clayoquot Girl * taken by Edward Sheriff Curtis shows a native girl laughing. Although the artist was criticized for emphasizing the idealized side of these native communities` lives, the stress on feelings and facial expressions of the depicted children is still remarkable. George Benjamin Luks` painting of 1920/1921 called In the Corner focuses on two naughty children, a girl and a boy; judging by their stance, they are planning a prank. There also is a more democratic suggestion introduced here by the contrast between the girl`s and the boy` outfits. The girl looks like a bourgeois whereas the boy might be a humble newspaper seller, still, they do not echo the hierarchy of the adult world, but rather re-create their own.
* They really are painted on a painter palette with the thumb hole being the boys` mouths.
*Clayoquot, a native community located on the West coast of Vancouver Islan (British Columbia).