Winter 2002/03

Picturing Innocence: An Interview with Anne Higonnet

From the ideal child to the knowing child

Sina Najafi and Anne Higonnet

­At no time in history have pedophobes had it worse than now. Images of children are everywhere; on calendars and Christmas family cards, in advertisements for banks and toilet paper, on keychains and in office cubicles. Grinning at us in that saccharine way that profitmakers love, these images speak of an age of innocence not yet tainted by politics, economics, moral failure, disappointments, class frustrations, ill health, and, worst of all, knowledge of one’s mortality. The sheer numbers of such images are staggering. Of the 25 billion photographs taken in the US every year, about half of them feature the very young. According to the Wolfman Report of 1992, 38 percent of amateur photographs deemed important enough to be framed were of children.[1] The ubiquity of images of children may not tell us anything about the variety of images we produce and circulate but it is symptomatic of contemporary Western obsessions with childhood. In her book Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood, Anne Higonnet, professor of art history at Barnard College, traces the history of the images that helped shape this contemporary relationship to children as it first emerged in the eighteenth century. Sina Najafi spoke to her by phone.

Cabinet: Your book sets out to do two things. First, you trace the history of the Romantic paradigm of the innocent child that emerged in the eighteenth century. Second, you show how we are today witnessing the breakdown of this paradigm in favor of an alternative relationship to childhood which you call “Knowing Childhood.” What was at stake in this two-fold project?

Anne Higonnet: The two-fold approach was necessary to make particular arguments. One issue was to estrange us from images of children, photographic and otherwise, that seem natural, normal and real, and the other was to present a set of alternative possibilities, the greatest and most cumulative of which is happening now: an extremely widespread cultural alternative being presented first and most confrontationally in the art world.

I started the book project with a question that came out of the current political situation, a child pornography case called Knox v. the United States. The legal problem of Knox hangs on the question of whether you can legally define the one true meaning of a photograph, which made me understand that what I thought was an art historical question was more fundamentally in the present a legal question. However, I also understood that as an art historian I had a kind of argument to make about child pornography that was not being made even at the level of the Supreme Court, which is the historical contingency of any image of childhood, including the most basic assumption about the absolute innocence of childhood. I knew from the most cursory examination of differences between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art that in the eighteenth century a set of very talented and academically eminent artists led by Sir Joshua Reynolds engaged in a brilliant visualization of new concepts of childhood that were radically different from concepts of childhood before.

When did historians first examine these shifts in the conception of childhood?

The model of a rupture in the eighteenth century was first set out in 1973 by Phillipe Ariès in Centuries of Childhood. It has been contested since by other historians who ask that we understand that there are elements of continuity in the history of childhood as well as epistemic ruptures.

Maud Humphrey Bogart’s 1900 drawing of her son, the future Bogey.

Even at its moment of conception, this new concept of childhood seems to have been suffused with nostalgia.

A very powerful force shaping our ideals of the innocent childhood is the force of nostalgia. It’s about adults who want to look back on a time before their own lives which was supposedly less complicated, more pure and worthy, and one of the symptoms of that is how repeatedly an ideal childhood has been cast with the signs of a time past in relation to the present. For instance, children’s fashions for a very long time were the most nostalgic and most resistant to change of all Western dress.

Even back in the eighteenth century, one of the iconic paintings of childhood was Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, which became, not coincidentally, the world’s most famous painting in the nineteenth century. Already in the eighteenth century, the blue boy is dressed in seventeenth-century costume and is a figure of nostalgia, both social and personal.

What was the conception of childhood preceding Romantic childhood, and why is there this shift in the eighteenth century toward the Romantic innocent child?

The crucial dimension of the pre-Romantic notion is that the child is born into sin and gradually learns to become pure and righteous. Moral purity is attained, not something one is born with. The overwhelming majority of children are introduced into the sexual and working world of adults right from the moment of birth.

People from different fields tend toward different explanations of why the shift occurred. There is a demographic explanation. In a brutal sense, a model of childhood prior to the eighteenth century is one of likely death. As infant mortality begins to be curbed, parents develop expectations that the child will live and they attach a greater emotional significance to each and every child. There is also a very significant religious shift that goes on in the eighteenth century as a more evangelical and personally spiritual Protestant religion spreads; the idea of an innocence here on earth becomes increasingly important as a spiritual concept so that the Catholic concept of a child born into sin is replaced by a much more Protestant concept of an innocent childhood. By the nineteenth century, those who speak about childhood—Lewis Carroll is a very good example—speak of it as a golden innocence before the shadow of adult sin.

Another factor that’s pointed to, at least in terms of the increasing pace with which the issue of childhood becomes important, is the one that Freud points to—if not in some kind of transcendentally analytical way, at least in a locally descriptive way. As the family becomes more intensely nuclear, the emotional issues around parent-child relationships become increasingly important in society. It’s not just that you have a change in the concept of childhood but that the whole notion of what childhood is becomes increasingly important. You can say that Freud in a way is both the describer of that and the proof of that, because so much of his theory is based on the importance to the psyche of what happens in childhood, even though Freud is debunking the notion of a childhood sexual innocence. But Freud is also the person who tells us about denial, displacement and repression, which is how the idea of absolute childhood innocence is still maintained.

Have Marxist historians addressed the eighteenth-century redefinition of childhood? You point out in your book that paintings by people like Gainsborough and Reynolds are also working to eradicate the class component of previous portraits of children.

I think what a Marxist would say is that the notion of innocent childhood is a means by which the middle class at once represses any awareness of the conditions of working-class life and simultaneously consolidates its own identity. As the middle class became by far and away the dominant class in Anglo-Saxon culture, the concept of childhood became correspondingly more important. One explanation for the idea of innocent childhood being so predominantly Anglo-Saxon is that it is precisely a middle-class concept.

In the nineteenth century one sees the way that progressive reforms wider than childhood find a rallying point in this notion of childhood innocence. Some of the most effective early labor reforms are demands for the elimination of child labor. Some of the most effective reforms of the judicial system in the nineteenth century are demands for a separate justice system for children and for adults. One of the surest markers that we are entering into yet another dramatic change in the notion of childhood is that the concept of a separate justice or different standard for children is now being called into question in the US, as the majority of states are now demanding that many children be tried as adults.

But there is also a paradox insofar as child pornography laws are structured to increase the chasm between adult sexuality and childhood innocence.

What one could propose is that much of the anxiety and guilt over issues about the boundary line between childhood and adulthood is being crowded, overcrowded, into the domain of the visual. My job then became to fill in the gap between the eighteenth century and the present and to figure out what happened. It turned out that all of the high art images to which I would have instinctively turned to explain the history of the image of childhood have become decreasingly relevant. I learned that as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries went on it was popular and mass-reproduced images that increasingly acquired the ability to define cultural assumptions of what childhood looked like.

Is that a simple question of those kinds of images reaching more people?

Most basically, yes, but there is also a gender factor involved. In the nineteenth century, women were tracked toward the representation of childhood because it was considered suitably feminine and so what happened in the nineteenth century was that a disproportionate share of artistic talent was being devoted, paradoxically, to the simplification and popularization of a commercial image of childhood. By the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the 20th, there are some extraordinarily gifted women who find themselves creating an extremely culturally powerful visual ideal.

An illustration by Kate Greenaway for the 1881 nursery rhyme collection Mother Goose.

To understand how widely images circulated before the appearance of the modern media, is it possible to state who would have seen a painting like The Blue Boy, for example?

In the eighteenth century, it would have been known through very small-scale but public painting exhibitions. These exhibitions were free. Then in the nineteenth century, the painting hung in an aristocratic collection that was sometimes open to the public. The middle class could have seen the painting if they made an effort.

The Blue Boy then begins to be reproduced in the form of prints. By the second half of the nineteenth century, you can talk about a mass reproduction of prints; then at the beginning of the twentieth century the painting is sold to the American collector Henry E. Huntington, and that sale is the occasion for tremendous media exposure which brings out the way in which the picture taps into ideas about childhood, as well as the way the terms of popular culture are ceasing to be controlled by Europe and are being taken over by the US. If you track the most popular and influential images of childhood, you can see in the nineteenth century that those images are overwhelmingly European, in particular English, whereas in the twentieth century they are overwhelmingly American.

As are some of the major challenges to the traditional representation of innocent childhood.

When Sally Mann started contradicting stereotypes of childhood in the late 1980s, she was like a one-woman force and everyone rightly focused on her as someone who was breaking all the rules about the representation of childhood. As it turns out, a decade later, she is completely vindicated; she turns out to have been announcing a kind of widespread change in how people think about childhood. Her work belongs to a very particular and crucial moment. There are many people working in that field now, but one of the things Sally Mann was up against was the claim that not only that her images were wrong, but that the subject was trivial.

Your book discusses at length the role that women illustrators like Jessie Willcox Smith and Kate Greenaway played before and during the Golden Age of Illustration (1880s-1920s) in producing images of children. Were there men in the field?

Yes, there were some great nineteenth-century children’s book illustrators who were men: Randolph Caldecott and Arthur Rackham, for example. The whole commercial image-making realm opens up in the last quarter of the nineteenth century because of technological changes in printing as well as the development of a child audience for books. There is a lot of debate as to whether there is such a thing as a “child consumer,” particularly in the field of children’s literature, and about whether it is all about their parents’ tastes. But certainly a child audience develops at that time. So there are new ways of making a living as an artist that did not exist before. That is one of the reasons why women are attracted to the field. There are ways of making a living in the field that are less closed to them than the high-arts realm of painting and that’s how you get a disproportionate share of female talent working on the subject of childhood.

Do the women receive their training as painters at art academies or do they go to specialized schools for illustrators?

Both. Some receive the academic art training and some go directly into an illustration training school. A place in the States where a woman would be trained in the high arts and then would be shunted off for commercial work would be the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. Thomas Eakins, who taught there, was very active in encouraging women, but some of them ended up working in illustration. And then there was the “Brandywine” School of Illustration coming out of the Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington, Delaware. The school produced Jessie Willcox Smith, Violet Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and also N. C. Wyeth, the first of the great Wyeth line. In general, women went wherever there was a teacher who would accept female students.

The financial success these female illustrators were having is astonishing. Your book mentions that when Maud Humphrey Bogart, future mother of the actor, married in 1898, she was making $40,000 a year doing illustrations of children. But what is even more surprising was the critical success they were accorded by people like Ruskin, who was a great supporter of Kate Greenaway’s work.

For many critics, this was a very happy outcome for a gender dilemma. Women were being given an outlet for their talents and yet they were not threatening any gender conventions. On the contrary, their talents were being used to confirm an identification of women with maternity. Every single one of these women illustrators said they were very strongly encouraged to specialize in the subjects of maternity and childhood.

But then something must have happened in the period since the late eighteenth century because Reynolds’s or Gainsborough’s representations of childhood were presumably considered masterpieces of the first order.

Absolutely. Childhood was becoming simultaneously popularized, commercialized, and feminized by the late nineteenth century.

It is kind of odd that this would not have already happened by the eighteenth century.

Prior to the eighteenth century, maternity was one of many diverse occupations and obligations that fell to women. As you get the split between consumption and production in the Industrial Age, women become increasingly relegated to the home and that home becomes the site of a much more nuclear family. The mother-child relationship became increasingly close and idealized in the course of the nineteenth century.

By the time the women of the Golden Age of Illustration are active in magazines, there also seem to be many more products on which the motifs could be replicated. There are things like kitchen towels, tablecloths, greeting cards, etc.

Now we are getting to a “chicken or the egg” question between technology and ideology. Only when you have the mass production of goods and the mass reproduction of consumable images can you even begin to conceive of a popular commercial image. Once those images begin to be produced, once you have what we call tie-ins to books and visual advertisements for products, then the process begins to feed on itself and one generation of commercial illustration is the foundation on which the next will work. Commercial imagery becomes based on its own tradition of imagery, and less tied to a high art tradition.

Your book delineates five major visual archetypes for representing the Romantic child that the illustrators picked up from art history and which are still with us today.

Yes, it is really astonishing to see how every single image of childhood to which we still cling at the beginning of the twenty-first century was invented or perfected in late-eighteenth-century England and was already in place in the popular but unique oil paintings of mid-nineteenth-century Victorian culture. All five types in some way proclaimed the innocence of the child, which meant concentrating on the body paradoxically in order to diminish its corporeality. The categories are mother with child; child with pet; child dressed up in a fancy costume; angel child; and children posing as adults.

How does illustration lose its primacy as the medium for representing children?

Between the 1880s and 1920s, illustration had a gigantic audience compared with any other previous audience for images and had very little media competition. But as it became possible and affordable to reproduce photographs, commercial illustrations were slowly replaced.

From the start, women had more opportunities in photography than they did in the more traditionally prestigious media. In fact, that was even more true with photography than it was with commercial illustration. From the very start there were women like Julia Margaret Cameron who demanded that photography be considered a fine art. There was a niche for women, going all the way up to art photography and even up to the present. The single most successful image-maker of children today is Anne Geddes. It remains true that an overwhelming number of people who address the subject of childhood seriously are still women.

The representation of childhood and the relationship between masculinity and femininity are always to some extent tied together. It is only in the nineteenth century that childhood begin to be associated with maternity and takes a conventionally feminine role. However as the twentieth century unfolds and feminism makes demands for femininity to be reconceived, the tension between the sexual feminization of children and the infantilization of adult women has become one of the most fruitful subjects for contemporary artists to address.

I would also say that while women are under the strongest cultural pressure to believe in a happy, idyllic notion of maternity, there are aspects of their personal experience that lead them to question that conventional, stereotypical image of childhood. There is nothing like being with a toddler 24 hours a day to make you think that toddlers are not always angels.

Glen Wexler, cover for Van Halen’s Balance, 1994.

Even though you think that the crisis of ideal childhood is coming to a head now, you also provide historical examples of images of childhood that we can now see already implied a different relationship to children. Lewis Carroll’s photographs are an obvious case, but you also include someone like Julia Margaret Cameron.

Julia Margaret Cameron began photographing when her children were already grown up. The camera was given to her by one of her children in an attempt to console her for her empty nest. However you interpret Lewis Carroll’s relationship to children, it was certainly very intense and ongoing, whereas Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs were in a way nostalgic images of relationships to children. Some sensitive photo historians like Carol Armstrong or Carol Mavor now think that Cameron and Lewis Carroll produced equally complicated images of childhood.

Lewis Carroll’s photographs have been discussed in terms of the desire of the photographer for the child but we also need to address the sexual knowledge of the child him- or herself, of what you call the knowing child. What is the relationship between these two desires?

That is a very important issue because, in our efforts to protect children from adult society, we’ve relied for a great deal of time on this idea of childhood innocence. The way the rationale went is: “Children are innocent, and in particular they are sexually innocent; therefore they deserve to be protected.”

Once we all start listening to Freud or looking at Calvin Klein ads, we might say, “Maybe children are not so sexually unknowing, and maybe adults have very complicated sexual feelings about children.” Does that mean children no longer deserve to be protected? I think that the most well-meaning opponents of child pornography use that as their strongest argument: “We need to defend the idea of absolute sexual innocence in order to justify any kind of protection of children.“ I feel so strongly that children should be protected from the consequences of adult society that I don’t believe the sexual feelings of either children or adults should in any way compromise the protection of children.

Of course it is easier to legislate adults than to control children themselves.

Yes, but my feeling is that our judicial system should be vigilant about real things that adults do to children.

The alternative conception of childhood acknowledges the complex relationship that children have with the world around them, and that adults have with children. But the sexual dimension of that complexity is something that capitalist culture seems to have sniffed out very quickly and we now see many ads that feature the post-Romantic knowing child. For one thing, children are being sexualized at speeds and in ways that are astonishing.

This is where I would like to substitute the word objectify for the word sexualize. To the extent that the sexualization of the child is an objectification of the child, it is a strategy of a consumer culture that leaves children vulnerable, and which I think is exploitive. However, I do not believe that all sexualizations are objectifications. I think there are many different kinds of sexualization and some forms endow a subject with a sense of power and personhood, which is the opposite of objectification. Some of Nan Goldin’s images of children are subjectified without being sexualized. And I think we all know examples of children who have been objectified through their innocence. That is just as insidious as any other kind of objectification.

My other comment is that this issue is so culturally and historically subjective that while one, at every moment in time, can try to defend the welfare of some very young people, I think it is extremely difficult to do so on the basis of some transcendental definition of childhood. Here is one tragic example. Human rights organizations try to address the global sexual traffic in children, as well as the use of children as soldiers. Of course they come up against culturally different notions of childhood, which makes us want to enforce an absolute definition of childhood, for a change.

How does one square the cultural knowledge you bring to your book and the kinds of decisions needed to put legislation in place? Once we’ve understood the complicated relationship between adults, children, and the representations we produce of them, then there is no certain place we can go to.

That is a two-pronged project. First, you leave representations alone because they belong to the province of free speech, and you concentrate on action. And then some admittedly arbitrary decisions will need to be made on the basis of age.

The recent Supreme Court case, Ashcroft v. The Free Speech Coalition, overturned large parts of the Child Pornography Protection Act of 1996, most importantly the sections banning any “virtual” images that implied that a minor was engaged in a sexual activity. Can you comment on this?

I hope I accurately predicted in my book that the issue is an increasing strain between real actions perpetrated against real children and completely fictionalized situations. It seems to me that a case about completely artificially created images should be easy to decide, because real children are not at stake. To me, that clarifies the pornography controversy insofar as there is a categorical, philosophical, and, I would hope, judicial difference between representations, on the one hand, and actions against real children, on the other.

This is a difficult moment in which people’s anxieties over radical change are causing them to make very hasty and dramatic decisions and this is a period of great anxious flux. Of course I hope and believe it will all sort itself out soon, but I don’t believe these things progress in a linear way.

  1. Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (New York & London: Thames & Hudson, 1998), p. 87.

Anne Higonnet is a professor at the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Barnard College. She is the author of Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (Thames & Hudson, 1998) and Berthe Morisot (Harper Collins, 1990).

Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet.

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