Published: October 24, 2006
“American ABC: Childhood in Nineteenth Century America,” one of the most comprehensive exhibitions in recent decades to deal with American childhood, will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art November 2–January 7. The exhibition features approximately 110 works by such American artists as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, George Catlin, Eastman Johnson and Lilly Martin Spencer.
Over the course of the Nineteenth Century, the United States grew from an infant republic to a powerful nation with a prominent place in world affairs. “American ABC” demonstrates how portrayals of the nation’s youngest citizens took on an important symbolic role in the United States’ long journey towards maturity, and it provides a window into the everyday life of the period — the world of families, children’s pastimes and the routines of the schoolhouse. By linking the forces of transformation — urbanization, war, technology, territorial expansion — to portrayals of childhood, “American ABC” will provide special insight into the development of the United States.
The exhibition encompasses six themes that address the most important issues in Nineteenth Century America. The Country Boy discusses the agrarian ideals of American democracy and the definition of manhood, and Daughters of Liberty examines the roles assigned to the nation’s future wives and mothers. Children of Bondage and The Ragamuffin deal with the issues of slavery and immigration, while the situation of Native Americans is the subject of The Papoose. Concluding the themes, The New Scholar considers contemporary attitudes toward education and the idea that a system of public schools could unite the many peoples of America.
Using paintings, prints, photographs and books selected from major museums, libraries, archives and private collections throughout the United States, “American ABC” explores the connection between images of the American child and the democratic ideals of the young United States. The exhibition includes a wide variety of illustrated children’s books from the Nineteenth Century, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Noah Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book, McGuffey’s readers and colorful ABC primers, as well as other materials such as needlework, children’s crockery and illustrated magazines.
The exhibition’s companion book, written by Claire Perry, curator of American art at the Cantor Arts Center, and published by Yale University Press, expands on the themes of the exhibition and presents new research on the social and economic significance of childhood in Nineteenth Century America. The companion book will be available in the museum store.
The exhibition was organized by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.
The museum is downtown at the corner of High and Congress Streets. For information, www.portlandmuseum.org or 207-775-6148.
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