- Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood
Anne Higonnet’s book on the historical representation of children in the visual arts examines the construction of childhood from the careful perspective of a scholar and parent, aware of the pleasures and dangers attendant on anyone who speculates about childhood or children. Understanding that children are persons with a stake in the world and that “fewer subjects [are] more vital than the subject of childhood” (14), Higonnet’s seriousness is underscored by her clear prose style that seems intended to reach a larger audience than the academic specialist. Indeed, because we all position ourselves as specialists of a sort about childhood and children, if only our own, all the more reason to challenge our taken-for-granted wisdom through an examination of the hidden history of childhood, made visible in three centuries of art. Constructed as innocent or erotic, the “natural child” posits competing essences of childhood and comprises the difficult terrain Higonnet travels in what she names “the visual inventions of childhood” (8).
The author is clearly most interested in contemporary photographs of children; her discussion includes Victorian portrait photography, the growing documentation of family life in home photographs, children’s images put to commercial use, and the more problematic art photography of the sort that has stirred controversy in past years. Higonnet locates a crucial if incomplete paradigm shift in our ideas of children and childhood in those visual representations she calls “Knowing Children . . . images [that], for the first time in the history of art, endow children with psychological and physical individuality at the same time as they recognize them as being distinctively child-like” (12). To trace this development, Higonnet begins with “The Invention of Innocence,” an analysis of the Romantic child in paintings and early photographs, to the second part of her book, “An Ideal in Crisis,” in which she details the characteristics and contradictions posed by the invention of the Knowing Child.
Invention is an apt term because it is not a term of nature. It connotes the unique and the creative, but also the produced and the mechanical. Most importantly for Higonnet, inventions make possible visual evidence of childhood, spanning from the highly stylized portrait to the commercial photograph. Prototype and replica, body and technology are fundamental [End Page 437] means through which persons organize identities into categories—man or woman, child or adult, others/ourselves. The urgency with which we police the boundaries of our identities, particularly in representations and in language, affirms the slippery and conditional quality of the categories themselves.
Despite such vigilance, Higonnet writes, “pictures of children have proved dangerously hard to control” (7), eluding the very distinctions between child nature and adult nature they more generally establish. Higonnet concentrates her argument in this vein on the twentieth century, but traces this tendency to the Romantic child:
According to Romantic pictures of children, innocence must be an edenic state from which adults fall, never to return. Nor can Romantic children know adults; they are by definition unconscious of adult desires, including adults’ desires for childhood. The Romantic child is desirable precisely to the extent that it does not understand desire. So the image of the Romantic child is an unconscious one, one that does not connect with adults, one that seems unaware of adults. The child . . . is presented for us to look at, to enjoy looking at, but not for us to make any psychological connection with.(28)
Because the Romantic child is an entity without full consciousness, it invites adult projection: sweetly sentimental girls and boys defer darker images of real children’s pain and suffering while portraits and statues of beautiful dead children inspire sensual longings (29–30).
According to Higonnet, the genre types that rose to popularity in late eighteenth-century England, including costumed children, children with pets, and fairy children derived from earlier cupid figures, babies with mothers, and children playing at adult gender roles, each depended on diminishing the actual child’s corporeal body in favor of a sentimental pose: passive...