In Picturing Innocence, art historian Anne Higonnet claims that viewers of an image--be it Joshua Reynold's 1788 "Portrait of Penelope Boothby" or Lange's "Damaged child"--experience the work psychologically and emotionally, as well as visually. She describes the evolution of pictures of children from little adults to unadulterated innocence and suggests that artists and viewers alike bring certain predispositions to the work. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the notion of children "as faulty small adults, in need of correction and discipline," which derived largely from Christian beliefs of original sin, prevailed (8).

Introduction
The FSA
'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
Conclusion
Sources
"Damaged Child"
"Damaged child "
Children appeared in pictures as miniature versions of the grown-ups they were to become. They dressed and gestured as adults, which also demonstrated their respective stations in life. Anthony Van Dyck's 1635 portrait of the two Villiers boys, for example, depicts two figures dressed in adult-styled clothing sized to fit their small bodies. Their stiff poses--"hands on hips, toes turned out, one leg extended forward"--convey the masculinity and authority of their older male relations, traits the boys soon would grow into (17). The portrait suggests affluence and power, not childhood sweetness.
The Villiers
"George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and His Brother, Lord Francis Villiers"
Around the enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, popular conceptions of childhood changed. Society adopted the idea of the "blank slate" and beginning life in a state of unconsciousness. Art reflected the transition: no longer vessels of psychological and sexual awareness, children became asexual, physically neutral, and psychologically unaware. The "Romantic child" was born. Romantic children, claims Higonnet, "deny, or enable us to forget, many aspects of adult society…. The Romantic child makes a good show of having no class, no gender, and no thoughts--of being socially, sexually, and psychically innocent" (23-24). In comparison to the Villiers, "Penelope Boothby," for example, attracts adoration; she does not exert power. She sits meekly with her hands gently clasped. Her dress and hat mimic adult styles, but the bigness of the clothing compared to the smallness of her face identify Penelope as a child playing grown-up. As Higonnet describes: "Reynolds does not quite mock his model, but her youth, her smallness is rendered as not-being-big-enough, as a discrepancy between her child body and an adult body that would fit these clothes correctly. 'Penelope' has been endearingly miniaturized" (28). The viewer feels as though Penelope would topple over if she tried to move, and this makes her charming. The white dress, moreover, underscores her youth and innocence.
"Penelope Boothby"
"Penelope Boothby"

No longer considered little adults in need of moral reform, children became icons of innocence and naivete onto which adults could project their own hopes, dreams, and ideals. Paintings and sculptures of socially ignorant, asexual children dominated the art world, and the "Romantic child" became the accepted standard. Because this ideal placed a high value on corporeality, or the lack thereof, it could be easily adopted within artistic contexts. Concepts regarding physical bodies are easily demonstrated in visual forms like paintings. Older works, such as that of Van Dyck, mimicked adult physicalities in the portrayal of childhood, making no effort to hide blossoming sexuality. The Villiers boys, for example, stand in a dignified manner that indicates power and aggression. Paintings of Romantic children, on the other hand, concentrated on aspects of the body "least closely associated with adult sexuality, a difference reinforced by the child's clothing, which wafts in pure white drifts across what would be adult erogenous zones" (15). Viewers could distinguish between girl and boy bodies, but they could discern no signs of sexuality.

Moreover, the naissance of the Romantic child occurred during a period of burgeoning empiricism, when society first "placed its faith in visual evidence" (9). According to Higonnet, the idea of innocence "lent itself to visual representation because the immediate visibility of pictures has always had a privileged ability to shape our understanding of our bodies, our physical selves" (8). The invention of photography, a medium that produced genuine replications of real images rather than imaginative interpretation like those rendered through painting or sculpture, further codified the innocent child:

The signs of Romantic childhood can be as effectively marshaled for the camera lens as they were previously painted or drawn. By the time photography came to dominate the representation of children, the image of the Romantic child had been so completely perfected and so often reproduced that it would not even have to be consciously summoned up in the minds of photographers. It had become a visual habit, an assumption, a pattern expected, looked for, and replicated (86).

Photography seemed to guarantee the innocence that paintings and sculptures could only assert.

Interestingly, Higonnet's theory of physicality resonates with Thomas Fahy's interpretation of the body during the depression. He describes the potential for physical deformity as the representative symbol of Depression-era literature and imagery. He argues both that President Roosevelt's own disability somewhat shifted perceptions of disabled people from sideshow freaks to everyday heroes and that the crippled body became a metaphor for "eroded optimism and opportunity" in the '30s (2-3). According to Fahy, Lange in particular relied on parts of the body as indicative of struggle and determination. He explains: "While Lange's images of hands, feet, and backs suggest some of the ways that land owners and corporations were reducing individuals to tools for labor, these fragmented bodies also communicate strength and agency. They represent a universal determination in America to overcome adverse conditions" (9-10). FSA photographers strove to portray, albeit ambiguously, the durability of humanity rather than its potential for devastation in the shape of deformity. Similar to adult projections of innocence through the Romantic child, this practice left room for hopefulness: these people retained the physical ability to overcome their poverty and hardship and, therefore, held onto their faith in humanity. By concentrating on anonymous body parts, Fahy asserts, Lange allows for ambiguous readings that simultaneously embrace fatigue and energy.

The FSA engaged in a balancing act: it portrayed people as victims but in a dignified way. The subjects of FSA photographers evoke sympathy but without appearing grotesque or pathetic. Stryker's staff captured humanity and its senseless suffering. This tension particularly heightens our reaction to images of children. Kids in FSA photos demonstrated resilience as well as weariness. They embody a stunted potential. In a different time, under different conditions, these children would be enrolled in school rather than picking peas, playing with friends rather than making dinner, showing the natural exuberance of youth rather than sitting quietly and exhausted.

 

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