A charming view of children through America's history
New York — Two very special institutions, the Museum of American Folk Art, and the New York Historical Society, have combined forces here to present an utterly charming twopart exhibition of 17th-through 19th-century folk art -- by, for, and about children.
"Small Folk" documents the changing nature of American children during that period. It consists of over 300 child-related objects, including portraits of children (often holding their pets, and frequently painted by "country limners") , child-scale furniture, miniature quilts, examples of children's calligraphy, hand-made family records, samplers, board games, toys of every sort, and dolls galore.
There is also a child's barber chair in the form of a pompous rooster, to say nothing of a 1797 watercolor by 10-year-old Timothy Tileston of the "Battle of Bunker Hill," and a marvelous portrait of a family cat.
But I was particularly enchanted by a grouping of toys around a Christmas tree, for some of them resembled items I myself had played with as a child quite some time ago. The temptation to pick them up and hold them was very strong, but the rules and regulations -- to say nothing of my personal sense of adult dignity -- prevented me from doing so.
Delightful as these playtime objects are, however, the truly outstanding items in the show are the numerous portraits of children. These come in all media and sizes and depict all the phases of childhood from toddlers to teenagers.
With very few exceptions, these children are portrayed as serious, samll-scale adults. Even the infants, often as not, stand straight as a board and wear tiny adult expressions. "Louisa Richardson," for instance, was painted around 1820 standing practically at attention, and with the wise face of an elderly lady -- even though she could hardly have been over nine months old at the time.
I must admit, however, that this stiffness creaters its own peculiar sort of charm, particularly when the child's costume is extravagent or these is a complex family grouping. Even so, "Young Man in a Grey Linen Suit" (c.1815), is almost a parody of the genre, especially as the boy's dog is included looking as though it too was carved out of wood. And "John J. Wagner Family" (c.1846), includes eight family members -- four of them children -- all of whom look as though their house had just burned down.
The pets, of course, are everywhere! From the unafraid doe in the 1745 portrait of little Frederick Tellschaw, to parrots, squirrels, dogs, cats, etc., they peer out from behind tiny skirts hang for dear life from lttle hands, lie cradled in arms, stand stiffly at attention next to their masters, etc. The variety of cats in these paintings is staggering, including some whose ancestors could as easily have been canine as feline. But all of them were obviously loved and cared for -- or they would probably not have been included in these portraits.
One of my favorites among the portraits is the 1765 "Two Little Boys in a Garden." In it, two boys, one six and the other even younger, are seen dressed in their Sunday best. The six-year-old has just been breeched, meaning that he is wearing his first pair of trousers instead of the skirts he wore before. To say that he looks proud of his newfound dignity is to put it mildly.
Three girls share a similar pride in dressing up in "Three Sisters in a Landscape." Painted around 1838, this multiple portrait is complete in every detail including the ubiquitous cat and flowers held in youthful hands.
But none of these can compare with the 1800 portrait of "Emma Van Name" for impossible good humor. Little Emma, dressed in her best finery, and looking like a princess, stands holding a strawberry, while with her other hand she points to a huge crystal goblet filled to the brim with more strawberries.
Then there are the charming watercolor and silhouette portraits, the highly detailed birth certificates, the family registers, mourning pictures, samplers, school copybooks, toys, furniture, dolls, etc. Everything and anything a chold of those days could possibly want or need.
This is a show that should appeal to everyone. The larger portion of it, consisting of most of the portraits and the more serious material, is on view at the New York Historical Society. The majority of the playtime objects, on the other hand, can be seen at the Museum of American Folk Art. The trip between these museums -- a matter of a half-hour at most -- is an easy one by bus or by foot.
And the exhibition catalog, written by Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman, who also curated the show, covers the material neatly and thoroughly and includes numerous illustrations, many of them in color.
One final word. Both the Museum of American Folk Art and the New York Historical Society, while well known here, are not as familiar to visitors to this city as they should be. The former will shortly be moving to new quarters in order to accommodate its growing collection of folk art. And the historical society, crammed to the rafters with fascinating historical society, crammed to the rafters with fascinating historical objects, is a continuing source of exhibitions. While many of the latter deal specifically with local history, their quality and range of interest is so exeptional that they should interest a visitor from New Mexico as much as one from Niagara Falls.