American
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Artist Unknown (American, 19th Century),
The Greenhow Children , ca. 1818
oil on canvas, 60 1/2 x 73 3/4 in.
Gift of Miss Emily Keller, 1942.112

The Greenhow Children represents a marked departure from earlier American portraiture. The informal poses contrast strongly with the stiff and sober depictions of the Colonial period. Whereas all portraiture served to confirm the sitter’s privileged station — evidenced here by the comfortable setting and the servant pictured second from left — this group portrait also demonstrates changing attitudes toward children. By the nineteenth century, childhood was understood as a distinct phase of life marked by innate innocence, contradicting earlier ideas of children as miniature adults. The lighthearted gesture of the child at farthest left and admonishment of his elder sister reveal the transition from carefree childhood to cautious adulthood.

This charming painting by an anonymous artist shows how standard kids clothing has changed in the last two centuries. In the 1800s, in Europe and larger U.S. cities, children wore specific types of outfits at certain ages. Girls wore dresses of cotton, silk, sateen, fine wool, and poplin, varying in lengths from the knee to the floor. Boys wore dresses until about four, when they transitioned to trousers, a time known as “breeching,” or skeleton suits, tight suits with the pants attached to the jacket with buttons.

The Greenhow Children was painted in the new Neoclassical style brought to America from France in the early nineteenth century. The style, with its simplified rounded volumes, firm outline, and clear, limited palette of colors, contrasts with the earlier portrait style that emphasized complexity in design and detail and bravura brushwork.

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