Angels & tomboys

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

Much to our chagrin, we are late in drawing attention to an important exhibition originally organized by the Newark Museum. Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art opened in Newark last September and has since traveled to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee and to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, where it remains on view through September 30.

Featuring paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographs from such artists as Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Lilly Martin Spencer, the exhibition displays a variety of attitudes toward girlhood and femininity in the 1800s. They range from literal depictions of angels such as Abbott Thayer’s 1887 portrait of his daughter with giant feathery wings, to John George Brown’s Swinging on the Gate, an exuberant rendering of a bold young girl at play. The former is the picture of innocence and spiritual purity, a pervasive stereotype for girls of the time, while the latter shows an attitude toward girlhood that emerged after the Civil War, one that encouraged girls to engage in a freer and more physically active lifestyle.

Swinging on the Gate by John George Brown (1831-1913), c. 1878.
Oil on canvas. Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia.

Newark Museum curator of nineteenth-century American Art, Holly Pyne Connor, explains that “while individual works are analyzed in depth, they are also placed in a rich social, artistic, and historical context.” This allows for the discussion of numerous themes, as well as a closer look at the ways artists both rendered and helped shape social mores.

The Newark Museum’s website has added a virtual tour ( that offers a closer look at eight of the exhibition’s paintings and details some prominent themes, including the depiction of adolescence and burgeoning womanhood in Cecilia Beaux’s Dorothea in the Woods, as well as the post-Civil War uncertainty and issues of race and reconstruction in Eastman Johnson’s Union Soldiers Accepting a Drink.