Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 10, 2009
Anna Green French Paintings of Childhood and Adolescence, 1848–1886 Ashgate Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007. 342 pp.; 10 color ills.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754654605)

In her rigorous, provocative study, Anna Green engages the issues of modernism, modernity, and spectacle in later nineteenth-century Paris. Approaching the subject from the perspective of a social historian, she draws upon the writings of Charles Baudelaire and anchors her text in the theories of Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, and T. J. Clark. Paintings by Édouard Manet appear throughout the book, and his is often the gaze through which modernity is seen. However, if some of the components of Green’s book sound familiar, it is clear from the beginning that she has taken an original tack: rather than focusing on prostitutes and flâneurs, the well-studied signifiers of modernity, she situates children and adolescents at the center of her analysis. Her methodology is, as she describes it, “eclectic,” and because she supplements social history “with feminist, gender, discourse, and psychoanalytic theories” (17), the range of reference is broad, the angles of vision vary, and the images are layered with interpretative significance.

As Green explains in her introduction, children have never drawn the degree of attention given to prostitutes and flâneurs, even though it was the nineteenth century that codified “the modern ideal of childhood” (2) and that fetishized the child to the extent that Baudelaire among others could employ the trope of youth “as a metaphor for modernity” (4). This is not to say that children have eluded scholarship entirely, and Green’s book acknowledges the significant contributions made by earlier studies, such as the volume of essays edited by Marilyn R. Brown (Picturing Children: Constructions of Childhood between Rousseau and Freud, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002), along with Anne Higonnet’s Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998) and Rosemary Lloyd’s The Land of Lost Content: Children and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century French Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). Green’s work complements theirs, in the sense that she restricts her attention to the later nineteenth century and focuses on the links between the depiction of youth and the phenomenon of modernity.

An analysis of Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) opens the book, and with this painting Green literally foregrounds the subject of children, by drawing attention to the two small figures represented at the “dead centre” and in the front rank (25). She summarizes the general connections that have been made between this painting and Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life,” the ways in which subject and style hold to the poet’s idea of modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” (quoted in Green, 26). Most important for her analysis, however, is a further passage from the essay, the essence of it being that “the child sees everything in a state of newness,” a newness that genius recovers “at will” (27). The context of the remarks is a celebration of the modernism of the painter Constantin Guys, whom Baudelaire described as “a man who is never for a moment without the genius of childhood” (27). On the basis of Baudelaire’s linkages between childhood, painting, and modernity, Green stresses the importance of the children depicted in Music in the Tuileries Gardens as signifiers for Manet’s modernism and his “apparently unschooled, playful manner” (29). In chess-game fashion, she then moves to concepts of the blague and the carnivalesque, arriving at the observation that the painting’s “seemingly childish ‘blobs’” (42) can be seen to indict the society of the Second Empire, as “ridiculously—even perhaps dangerously—infantile” (42).

When I read Green’s analysis of the children in Music in the Tuileries Gardens, I thought at first that these two little figures had been freighted with far too much significance. Bit players in the painting, they were made to bear the weight of establishing the book’s central themes, a burden for which they seemed much too diminutive. But time proved the crucible, and as I read on, Green’s insights came through with convincing power. Something that has long puzzled me about these children is the odd manner of their depiction, their strangely informe faces and the right-hand child’s weirdly poofed-up shock of blond hair. These are not so much children, as caricatures of children, underscored by the oddly non-childlike proportions of the tot wearing the red sash and the figure’s disparity of scale vis-à-vis the other foreground figures. After I had read more deeply into the book, it seemed to me that these distorted depictions might be seen as a way of avoiding the sugary sentimentalism that often infected depictions of the very young.

In the ensuing chapters, Green treats “the ‘spaces’ occupied by youth, determined according to gender and class” (48). The analysis is basically sequenced in pairs: boys, then girls, of the working class (chapters 2 and 3); girls, then boys, of the middle class (chapters 4 and 5). Generally, interior spaces and “certain carefully monitored” (48) public sites were the settings for children of privilege, while the city’s outdoor spaces were the relatively uncontrolled arenas of working-class youth. In relation to working-class boys, she analyzes the slippage between the terms “working-class” and “dangerous,” and she considers representations of the gamins de Paris, the term given to street children, boys in particular.

According to many contemporary writers, the number of gamins seen on the streets of Paris increased significantly from the middle of the nineteenth century forward, with the transformation of Paris into a modern, industrialized city. When the population swelled, so did the percentage of vagrant children relative to the city’s child population as a whole, as Green documents. The change can be seen in the visual arts, and whereas works like Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s Charity (1865) offered a “picturesque” image of what Green terms “polished poverty” (53), other representations stripped juvenile vagrancy of its sentimentalism.

Perhaps most startling are paintings by Fernand Pelez, whose Homeless: The Violet Seller (1884) is reproduced on the book’s cover (see above). Though traditional in the handling of paint, Homeless lacks the sentimental bowdlerizing often seen in contemporary representations of Parisian street children. Arguing for the painting’s modernist elements, and thus rescuing Pelez from “the dustbin of reification” (55), Green looks to the changing significance of the word misérable, which evolved from “denoting a criminal to denoting the destitute condition which produced crime” (57)—in other words, from a condemnation of character to a more informed recognition of social factors. Thus, she interprets this work (and others by Pelez) as “depict[ing] misérables in the modern sense of that word” (57). From there, she investigates the abandonment of children; the laws regulating children who were picked up for vagrancy; the dangerous slippage contained in work like flower-selling, which hovered somewhere between labor and begging; and the inefficacy of the laws of 1881–82, which mandated free and compulsory elementary education, but were poorly enforced. From these perspectives, Pelez’s paintings of children-living-rough emerge as works that look backward in the handling of paint, but make direct reference to contemporary issues and inflect them with a modernist sense of ambiguity.

Chapter 3, entitled “Spectacular Girls,” considers how disadvantaged young females “constituted a specific, sexualized part of the modern Parisian ‘spectacle’” (87). Working with images of beggars, street-singers, ballet dancers, circus performers, and young prostitutes, Green examines the emphasis placed on the appearance of the young girls and the readiness with which disadvantaged females could be treated as ocular prey. Here, paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir are seen to be stereotypically scopophilic and infantilizing, especially his Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenburg) (1879). The canvas depicts two young girls at the end of a performance, receiving the oranges thrown by an appreciative audience. Both girls are shown as being a good deal younger than the teenagers they actually were, and in his representation of the right-hand figure Renoir emphasized the crotch of her costume and the clutch of oranges she holds to her chest

As for middle-class young females (chapter 4, “Good Little Girls”), instruction manuals vigorously enjoined that they be restricted to the home as much as possible. Doll-play was stressed as an important preparation for motherhood, the bourgeois female’s proper destiny within the confines of a patriarchal society. In fact, when state secondary schools were established for females in 1880, liberating girls was not so much the intent: rather, their education was provided so that when they became mothers they would be capable of instructing their children, especially their sons (140–44). Contrasting Renoir’s Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont (1884), which portrays the three Berard sisters occupied in socially sanctioned female pursuits (doll-tending, reading, sewing), with Berthe Morisot’s Young Girl with Her Doll (1884), Green concludes that the latter is another of Morisot’s unconventional paintings, in this case evoking sentience and the sense of a female’s interior life.

For the brothers of the “good little girls” (chapter 5), rigorous physical exercise was advised, to toughen them via active sports and games. Though ostensibly having more freedom than their sisters, young bourgeois males were nonetheless subjected to discipline and surveillance, in the attempt to curb what was seen as their innately rough and unruly natures. After the Franco-Prussian War, when it was believed that a reason for the French defeat “was the physical prowess of Prussian youth” (166), gymnastics became compulsory for schoolboys, and the period saw a proliferation of pre-military rifle battalions, aimed at preparing young lads for the defense of their country. If girls had their dolls, boys had toy guns, and a print from 1874 depicts two young boys surrounded by toy armaments and kneeling in prayer: “Dear God! Help us to grow big enough to manage real guns” (167).

Among the visual images that are seen to defy these constructs of youthful masculinity, Green situates Manet’s The Fifer (1866), which she convincingly interprets as a darkly ironic image. Subverting the rhetoric of militarism, Manet depicted a detached, flat, “apparently ungrounded” (170) young boy, who wears the uniform of Napoleon III’s Imperial Guard. The clothing seems oversized for its wearer, as a result of which the figure appears more like an actor in costume than a dedicated member of a military troop. A sense of play-acting prevails, the purpose of which was “to highlight the infantile duplicity of the Empire” (171). In support of Green’s interpretation, mention might also be made of the visual trickery caused by Manet’s alignment of the button on the fifer’s left sleeve with the buttons of the jacket’s front; and of the fact that Manet sent The Fifer to the Salon of 1866 with what was clearly a modernist costume piece—his painting of The Tragic Actor (1865–66), which depicts the actor Philibert Rouvière in the role of Hamlet. The chapter ends with a brief consideration of working-class male adolescents, who were perceived as dangerously anarchistic. As with middle-class male youths, exercise and military training were deemed advisable disciplines to channel their potential for violence and to prepare them for manual labor. That there are few representations of the adolescent working-class male explains the brevity of the discussion, as well as its placement as a coda of sorts to a chapter concerning middle-class males.

The following chapters broach the subject of sexuality. “Boys Will Be Boys: Childhood, Sex, and Adolescence” (chapter 6) picks up the idea that the discipline imposed on young males was also intended as a means of keeping their sexuality in check, and Green recognizes the duality of attitudes that obtained. Though “’laddish’ sexuality” (191) was considered to be healthy and natural, it was also considered something to be repressed and contained. Visual images are seen to operate according to a similar duality, and the depiction of nude or nearly nude young males usually entailed the employment of strategies of displacement and decorum. Looking at images of nude infants, boys, and adolescents, Green finds that Renoir “turns out to be the painter who seems to deal with what others found perhaps tricky or distasteful” (199)—sexualizing the representation of the breast-fed male infant in Maternity (1886), as he also eroticizes the male body in Young Boy with a Cat (1868–69). The chapter ends by setting adolescence forward as an important signifier of nineteenth-century modernity.

The provocatively entitled “‘Inside the Dark Continent’: Hysterical Pleasures” (chapter 7) takes an unexpected turn in opening with the significance of reading for young females. Observing that reading could provide an escape into the imagination for the young bourgeoise confined to the home, Green quotes passages from numerous contemporary writers who viewed a female’s reading as dangerous, and who argued for restricting it to safe and/or sanitized texts. Some writers believed that the female was prone to easy excitation; others, contrarily, deemed her “so naturally innocent” (225) that she warranted protection. Particularly at issue was the way in which reading could inflame a female’s hysteria, which was sometimes seen to form the core of her sexuality. Turning to Henri Gervex’s Young Girl Reading (1880), Green finds that the figure’s semi-nudity links the act of reading with sexuality and hysteria, in an appeal to the male imagination. After a brief segue to sexualized images of female children, she returns to the subject of reading, this time examining its liberating aspects for young females. Quoting Rosemary Lloyd, who interpreted Impressionist images of children reading as alluding to “new vistas of space and time” (232), Green discusses the interiority of reading as imbued with concepts of selfhood and modernity.

The final chapter analyzes changes in ideas about parenting, particularly as they concerned the role of the father and the relationship between fathers and sons. Under the Napoleonic Code, the father was an omnipotent figure, both in the home and by law; but writings from the later part of the nineteenth century encouraged fathers to be more affectionate toward their children, and more respectful of them, and to assume an active role in their upbringing. By the end of the century, the first laws were enacted to “protect the child from potential parental abuse” (254). Green examines this changing situation in relation to images of fathers and sons, including various depictions of the prodigal son and Manet’s depiction of the young Léon in Luncheon in the Studio (1868). Arguing that the painting successfully addresses the issue of “modern sons and modern fathers,” Green links Léon’s age—sixteen, therefore not quite a child, not quite a man—with the pensive interiority of his facial expression. Thus connecting adolescence with a state of “becoming” and with interiority, she concludes that of all the stages of youth adolescence was the most evocative signifier of nineteenth-century modernity.

Throughout French Paintings of Childhood and Adolescence, Green clearly demonstrates that although later nineteenth-century Paris has been heavily mapped and minutely charted by art historians, the city and the period have had their areas of scholarly neglect. While adding to the interpretations of works by familiar painters such as Manet and Renoir, she also brings forward the works of countless lesser-knowns. In doing so, she avoids an art history that cleaves artists into modernist or reactionary figures, and the breadth of her approach is such that the boundaries between the two groups often lose clear-cut demarcation. In some cases, works by canonical modernists prove to have their reactionary elements, while images by “dust-bin” reactionaries prove to be informed by modernist attitudes. This is yet one more aspect of Green’s study that makes it such a valuable read.

Jane Mayo Roos
Professor Emerita, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY