Flowers and dolls, angels and tomboys

The Newark Museum has a rich, textured, well curated show called Angels and Tomboys, Girlhood in 19th century American art.

Consistently, the images depict girls with dolls and flowers.  Dolls were a socializing agent, teaching girls how to become mothers.  Flowers suggested promise for the future and fertility, and specific flowers carried additional meanings based on the 19th century floral dictionaries.

Even women artists like Cecilia Beaux used the device of the flowers-in-the-lap, the promise of a fertile future for this girl.  But Beaux is sly, choosing to show pansies, the flower of thoughts and thoughtfulness.  Beaux introduces us to Fanny Travis Cochran from 1887, an intelligent, serious girl who gazes directly at us.  “I’m here.  Consider me,” she demands.

Ten years later, Beaux presents Dorothea in the Woods to us.  Notice how the girl is not only direct in her gaze, but also by being placed in nature, takes on more sensuality.  This girl has reached adolescence.  Our engagement with her is more complex, potentially more troubling.

I have never seen Beaux be so personal, even in her self-portraits.  Dorothea and Beaux have a relationship worth exploring.  One woman depicting another on the verge.  Who this girl will become in the new century shows how far girls and women came in that same 10 year period.

Interesting how many male artists show the girl or young woman gazing dreamily to the side, which also disempowers her, making her an object for our gaze and pleasure.

Charles Curran in his Lotus Lilies from 1888 literally immerses his girls in flowers.  Lilies represent purity and sweetness, as well as the exotic, and the painting is sumptuous.  Just hard not to notice how men and women depict women and girls differently.  We see these girls as flowers, and they are not even worthy of being named.

Since I’m currently researching and writing about Lilly Martin Spencer, I loved seeing the two late works of hers in the exhibit, and the additional painting in the permanent collection.  There is so much going on in Home of the Red, White, and Blue from 1867.  Let me know if you want to talk about it.

And her trademark wit is all over the apparently sentimental War Spirit at Home from 1866, while she also subtly challenges gender and racial roles.  I can hardly wait to work more with these images, especially now that I’ve lingered over them in person!

Spencer, War Spirit at Home, 1866












But enough of my soliloquizing.  The show is smart.  It includes stages of life and roles for girls and women, plus challenging works about working children and race.  It has revelatory works that we know and quite a few fresh faces.

The Newark Museum also incorporates a Victorian era house of a wealthy 19th century brewer.  The house is very dark, not only from (mock) gas lamp lighting, but also from Victorian tastes.  Still, in this slide show, you’ll get a sense of what it’s like.  Very evocative, and oh so nice for the season.