Children and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century American Folk Art

Attributed to Pieter Vanderlyn, American, ca. 1687–1778  Boy with Dog, ca. 1725–30  Oil on canvas. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Dr. Bernard H. Chaiken in memory of Mildred Chaiken It is well outlined that our contemporary conception of childhood—as a distinct period of development, one with unique demands, concerns, and fears—has been anything but constant. Indeed, the concept of the "child" as we know it is a relatively modern construct, the term itself a subject of endless redefinition.  

During the first half of the nineteenth century, childhood was granted a new status in the West. While prior to this period the initial stage of life was afforded little specificity from others, childhood was newly reconceptualized as a process of development toward adulthood. It was now thought that, throughout their early lives, boys and girls would have experiences that in significant ways would determine the character of their adult selves. Therefore, parents became deeply invested in their children’s formative years—categorizing, managing, and disciplining them throughout in an effort to guarantee future successes.  

This historically specific concept of childhood made way for a new symbolic order in Western art: artists sought a novel idiom with which to convey the idea that the lessons of childhood forecast the nature of the adult individual. The pictured child thus served as a repository for widely held values, given his or her status as a gradually unfolding adult in the making.  

Many of the qualities of this conception of childhood are reflected in American folk art, which is expressive of beliefs based on collectively held views passed down from earlier generations. As childhood became, in the words of William Wordsworth, the “seed-time” of the “soul” during the nineteenth century, folk art depictions of children incorporated crucial expressions of the lessons adults wished to impart, relatively unfettered by academic and aesthetic concerns, and distilled by the folk artist’s impulse to clearly communicate their ideas intergenerationally.   

Examining depictions of children in American folk art within this framework raises many questions. For example, featured in the Museum’s collection is Ammi Phillips’s Girl in Pink. How do the young girl’s clothing and gesture imply a gendered agency, or lack thereof? Another popular function of folk portraits was that they served as memorials for children who died early. What can these portraits tell us about the individuality children were newly afforded during the nineteenth century?  

1. Doing It Differently: Producing Gender in Folk Portraiture 

2. Life after Death: Mourning Practices through Posthumous Portraiture 

3. House Rules: Education, Picture Books, and Motherhood 

4. Fathers (and Mothers) of Man: Confronting the Transition to Adulthood  

For additional information, please explore the Museum’s exhibition Confronting Childhood, which also dealt with depictions of children in American art.   

Drew Pugliese

Class of 2024

2021 Summer Intern, American Art

Works Consulted

Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “Nineteenth Century American Folk Art,” October 2004,  

Rose, Nikolas S. Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 

Vlach, John Michael. “American Folk Art: Questions and Quandaries.” Winterthur Portfolio 345–355 (1980),  

Vlach, John Michael. Plain Painters: Making Sense of American Folk Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.  

Wells, Karen. “The Politics of Life: Governing Childhood.” Global Studies of Childhood, 1, no. 2, (March 2011): 15–25,