- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

Winslow Homer’s iconic “Snap the Whip” sets an optimistic stage for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America”, an instructional and handsome survey of America’s ideals and difficulties in that period.

This distinct display, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s grand opening of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, shows how images of children reflected America’s ambivalence in striving for a national identity.

For example, “Snap the Whip” (1872), an energetic boys’ game played during school recesses, expresses the new Huckleberry Finn-like buoyancy and restored confidence after the Civil War.

By contrast, David Gilmour Blythe’s mean-looking, skulking “A Match Seller” (circa 1859), an example of the “urchins” or young male orphans who roamed 19th-century America’s city streets, epitomizes these urban unfortunates.

From these two, it’s clear that America was at a crossroads. Paintings in the exhibit by Homer, Thomas Eakins, George Catlin, Eastman Johnson, Thomas LeClear and Edward Mitchell Bannister, with gleaming white sculptures by Harriet Hosmer, Randolph Rogers and Thomas Crawford, indicate America’s two faces.

One face, depicted in Homer’s “Country School,” shows him as the first painter to depict America’s transformation from a rural, agrarian society to an industrial one.

Here, the painter intends to show the importance of education. The United States, with Massachusetts at the forefront, led the world by the 1920s in introducing state-supported, secular common (elementary) free schools for all children. Moreover, the U.S. went on to create high schools, as well.

However, with millions of immigrants pouring into America’s cities during the 19th century’s last 20 years, Americans had to adjust their educational goals to “imparting the largest amount of information to the greatest number of children in the shortest possible time,” according to Britannica Online.

Education, or the lack of it, determines success in those times, the painting seems to say.

Superbly organized by Claire Perry of Stanford University’s Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, the exhibit is divided into ABC primers, a simulated 19th-century schoolroom and six sections labeled:

• “The Country Boy,” showing the agrarian ideals underlying America’s early vision of democracy.

• “Daughters of Liberty,” which illustrates feminine ideals of the times.

• “Children of Bondage,” showing slavery and its aftermath.

• “Ragamuffin,” which deals with the effects of urbanization and immigration on children.

• “The Papoose” including some of the few examples of paintings of Indian babies.

• “The New Scholar,” a section devoted to children in school, “some who went willingly, others who attended not so willingly.”

Visitors will choose their favorites, but I chose my winners with:

• Homer’s “Snap the Whip” and John George Brown’s appealing “The Berry Boy” from “The Country Boy” section.

• Seymour Guy’s “Unconscious of Danger,” with its mischievous girl about to push her brother over the precipice (as one story goes) in “Daughters of Liberty.”

• Homer’s “Army Boots,” showing two black boys in a Union tent in “Children of Bondage.”

• Blythe’s “Match Seller,” which shows a ragamuffin’s desperation over his unsold wares.

• Thomas LeClear’s “Interior With Portraits,” of a girl posing with her brother for a painter, in the show’s introductory section.

Perhaps because idealized children’s images can pale, I liked the “Ragamuffin” section best. The boys’ naughtiness alleviates the show’s pervasive saccharine approach, except for the Homers.

WHAT: “American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America”

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, today through Sept. 17.

WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets Northwest

PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: https://americanart.si.edu or www.reynoldscenter.org

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