Well into the 19th century, American artists paid scant attention to children. A wealthy family might commission a portrait of a son or daughter, but for the most part, art was an adult privilege.
By midcentury, however, an increasingly conflicted and anxious American society found comfort in a nostalgic longing for the hope and innocence of childhood. Painters responded with sentimental images of carefree children at play and fond remembrances of summers on the farm. (Understandably, rural life was deemed more wholesome than life in the city.)
George Inness, Under the Greenwood, 1881, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 29 1/8 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina
At the same time, less fortunate children began to appear in American art: they could no longer be ignored. As the cities swelled with boatloads of new immigrants and farm families migrated to the factories and slums, American society was compelled to consider the plight of the urban poor. For the artist (and his patrons), poor children were less threatening than adults. They could be depicted as ragamuffins or street urchins and still be charming. Their youth saved them from blame and the viewer of the painting from guilt.
John George Brown, A Tough Story, 1886, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 1/8 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina
In the 1880s New York City swarmed with the children of the desperate poor. Though he specialized in painting tenement kids, John George Brown consciously glossed over the squalor and viciousness of urban poverty. Instead he contrived a rose-tinted fiction. His street children, like these young bootblacks, are poor but plucky. (Think Horatio Alger.) We hope against hope they will succeed by hard work and quick wits. Unfortunately, many of these children never survived to adulthood.
Jacob A. Riis, Children [3 boys] sleeping on Mulberry Street, circa 1890, photograph, 4 x 5 in., From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, 184.108.40.206, http://mcny.org/collections
Brown’s meticulously observed realism enhances the credibility of the scene. Note the brushes and half-opened tin of boot polish. The name Pat carved into one boy’s blacking box identifies the lad as Patrick (“Paddy”) Ryan, an Irish immigrant and one of the artist’s favorite models.
Though dressed in rags, Paddy and his friends appear well scrubbed and well fed, none the worse for their hard life. However, look at their eyes: Brown is too honest an artist to disguise the weariness.
And what became of young Patrick Ryan? We don’t know.