The Little Ones
Portraits of Children from The Filson Historical Society

“ Between the dark and the daylight, When the night is beginning to lower, Comes a pause in the day’s occupations, That is known as the Children’s Hour.” 


By Estill Curtis Pennington
Visiting Curator of Fine and Decorative Arts

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William Solger, oil on canvas, c. 1870, by William Brown Cooper (1811-1890). Filson Portrait Collection The Filson’s large collection of portraits of children by noted artists who worked in the Ohio Valley region is interesting for two very different reasons. As works of art they offer a wide variety of style, ranging from the romantic to the naturalistic and from the sophisticated to the naïve. As images of children they open a window into 19th-century notions of innocence and experience and also occupy a cultural terrain whose geography would seem to exist as a separate country. 

In general terms, children in art from the 17th-century Baroque period through the 19th century were more often represented as young adults than as unique juvenile individuals set apart from adult concerns. One of the most admired children’s portraits of all time, Anthony Van Dyke’s painting of the five children of Charles I, depicts all the subjects dressed in court attire of the period, with cloaks and caps and dresses not unlike those worn by adults. In the 19th century, however, children were increasingly attired in “baby clothes,” usually of a highly androgynous nature, which concealed the child’s gender and kept it concealed until nearly the age of 5. 

The culture of the child also extended to literature. Many children’s books, including several by Kentuckians, were published during this time. McGuffey’s “readers” taught reading with text specifically aimed at a younger audience. In late 19th-century Kentucky there was an abundance of writers who created heroes and heroines based on the very young, including Annie Fellows Johnston’s Little Colonel and John Fox Jr.’s Little Shepherd. The role assigned to these children most often called them to bring a fresh perspective to a stale adult conflict. 

Three Jessee Boys, oil on canvas, c. 1865, by R.B. Craft (before 1839-after 1865). Filson Portrait Collection Several intriguing artistic issues arise as well when considering The Filson’s holdings. The portrait by J. T. Poindexter and William Frye have a certain naïve quality calling into question whether their actual composition was based on existing print sources from European works in the grand manner. The exotic coloration in the three paintings by W. B. Cooper signals a transition from the romantic to the impressionistic amongst painters in the South. The boldly plain works by “Craft” demand a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, as they are far larger than life and much less lifelike. 

The study of portraiture is often a study of ambitious intent. Parents desiring an image of an adored offspring sought artists ambitious to rise to the occasion. Unlike the likenesses of statesmen, generals and captains of industry, these “little ones” provoke us to call into question some of the more subtle questions of domestic life and culture as it existed in those now long gone days. 

Volume 5, Number 2

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