Works show changing world for girls

Charles Courtney Curran, “Lotus Lilies,” 1888, oil on canvas.

Charles Courtney Curran, “Lotus Lilies,” 1888, oil on canvas.

‘Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art’

At Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar in Overton Park, through May 12

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One could be forgiven for assuming that an exhibition titled “Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art” would provide a sea of filmy white dresses and gaggles of parasols. Indeed, there’s a fair share of those feminine accoutrements in the show, and they occur in some gorgeous paintings.

It turns out, though, that “Angels & Tomboys,” at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through May 12, is a serious, diverse and fascinating exploration of how painting, with some sculpture, illustration and photography, reflected the vast cultural changes both in attitudes toward girls (and by extension women) and in society as a whole during a century of transformation and upheaval.

The exhibition was organized by Holly Pyne Connor, curator of 19th Century American Art at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, and draws on that institution’s collection and the collections of 37 other museums — including the Brooks — and private individuals. After leaving the Brooks, the show travels to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

The dichotomy “Angels & Tomboys” reflects ideas about girls that have strangely changed little in 200 years. Are boys classified by and burdened with the strict moral opposites of “Goody-Two-Shoes” on the one hand or “Slut of the Universe” on the other? No, only girls receive that sort of commendation or opprobrium.

The exhibition begins in the early 19th century when childhood was seemingly androgynous and boys and girls alike wore dresses and long hair. These charming portraits, often executed by itinerant artists, reveal the genders of their sitters through recognizable symbols; though little boys and girls may look remarkably similar in garb and hairstyles, girls carry the blossoms that signify their eventual fertility, while boys manifest whips and miniature hammers that testify to their future powers and preoccupations.

The flower theme, linked to beauty, femininity and mystery, persists and even intensifies throughout the century. In Cecilia Beaux’s portrait of the sweet and rather melancholy Fanny Travis Cochran (1887), the girl, wearing white with a voluminous yellow sash, holds a bouquet of pansies on her lap. Masses of blue hydrangeas surround the adolescent Katherine Chase Pratt in her portrait by John Singer Sargent (1890), a marvel of loose brushwork. And in Charles Courtney Curran’s ravishing “Lotus Lilies” (1888), two beautifully dressed young women drift in a rowboat through a vast lake of lotus blossoms.

This last piece raises questions about what sort of people are portrayed in such paintings and what the works themselves signify socially. Artists like Curran and Sargent and, to some extent, William Merritt Chase counted members of the rising middle and upper middle classes among their patrons, people who could afford fine clothes and leisurely vacations, houses and interiors and the price of a painting by a well-known artist.

The works in “Angels & Tomboys” with which viewers in the early 21st century have the most difficulty empathizing are the genre pieces, heavy on narrative, allegory, morality and symbolism. Cloaked in such devices, it was considered appropriate to depict virtually naked girls, as in Seymour Joseph Guy’s “Dressing for the Rehearsal” (circa 1890), in which a nude young ballerina, standing on a chair, is being helped into her leotard by a woman whose bent head hides the child’s genitalia. Even in our era of sex-saturated media, this painting seems rather shocking.

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