The Angels and Tomboys exhibition is now closed and it has been a week since we relinquished our 19th-Century adolescents to the world, bidding adieu on Mother’s Day. We hope you had a chance to see them – painted, printed, and sculpted; they really were a crackerjack group of girls. Together they told the story of how the arts establishment in America came to be, while charting the emergence of children’s and women’s rights. Most did so anonymously, with their identities cloaked in a genre painting; although, as the award-winning exhibition catalog will tell you, the girls featured in genre works like Seymour Joseph Guy’s The Bedtime Story (above) or John George Brown’s The Cider Mill were likely the artist’s kin.Others gave us names in the titles of commissioned portraits; these girls were the painting's subject. Fanny Travis Cochran, subject of a portrait of the same name by Cecilia Beaux, later attended Bryn Mawr College and spent the rest of her life committed to social activism. Mary Calbot Wheelwright, painted by artist Frank Duveneck, went on to found the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art (now the Wheelwright Museum).
I was always most interested in the life-size tomboy shown in Eastman Johnson's Winter, Portrait of a Child. As organized by our Chief Curator Marina Pacini, the Winter child and Duveneck's "doll" hung on opposing sides of a small gallery alcove. While Wheelright was depicted in a state not unlike sleep-walk, with glassy eyes fixed somewhere to the left of the viewer, limply toting a doll at her side; Johnson's child seems to have but a minute to pose before she is off on her next adventure in the snow. Rosy-cheeked, mouth parted just enough to appear slightly out of breath, and in her hand is a string which pulls a sled. Winter has the scale of a painting in the Grand Manner, an aesthetic choice that connotes importance; yet it depicts a scene of the everyday – a young girl's winter adventure, which would customarily be left to smaller genre works. It only makes sense that the girl we see in Winter is Johnson's daughter.
It would be remiss to not mention Abbott Handerson Thayer's Angel, based on his daughter's image and painted while his wife was lying ill and would soon pass. Not only was she the starlet of our exhibition here in 2013, but it seems something was prodding this painting into popular culture 20 years ago as well. Angel graced the cover of Time Magazine with the headline "The New Age of Angels: 69% of Americans Believe They Exist. What in Heaven is going on?". Also in 1993, the indie pop band Superconductor released their album, Hit Songs for Girls, also featuring Thayer's Angel.
Consider this our contribution to the New Museum's recent show NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star.
Seymour Joseph Guy
A Bedtime Story, 1878
oil on canvas, 34 x 27 1/2