Filthy Street Urchins, Angelic Kids Duke It Out

I don’t often get to Newark, but a potentially racy show got my attention.

“Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art” at the Newark Museum promised “childhood androgyny,” “beautiful daughters captured unaware” and “enigmatic and disturbing girlhood images of family members...which reveal the complexity of the artists’ personal responses to the young girls who model for them.”

How could you not be just a little bit curious?

The strong, small museum, easy to get to by train, is a short walk from the station. Along with the usual amenities, it has some powerful pictures by Arshile Gorky, a planetarium and rich collections of ancient and Asian art. Most impressive is its attached wing, the 19th-century, 27-room Ballantine mansion of the celebrated Newark beer-brewing clan.

“Angels & Tomboys,” which travels on to Memphis and then to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, is a crowd-pleaser. I could see why, when face-to-face with the doe-eyed adolescent angel with huge wings splayed against a blue sky who lures you like a siren into the show.

Abbott Handerson Thayer painted her in 1887 and she is typical of the idealized female of the time.

Sexualized Children

While the exhibition’s subtext seems to be “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” some sexualized portraits of children may raise an eyebrow.

Two such paintings by Seymour Joseph Guy focus a little too intently on bare-breasted tweens and reveal more about the painter than his daughters.

More than 75 percent of the work is post-Civil War, when Victorian piety was being shaken, yet cultural shifts were countered by sentimental views of girls as beatific, submissive and domestic -- representative of our innocence, our salvation.

Playing to a longing for simpler times, most of the artists here treat females as symbolic or allegorical props -- docile dressed-up dolls posed in interiors and fields of flowers.

Exceptions occur when the work moves beyond doting and sermonizing. In William J. McCloskey’s narrative painting “Feeding Dolly (If You Don’t Eat It, I’ll Give it to Doggie)” (1890), solitary play time takes on sinister implications, especially when you notice that Doggie looks frightened and Dolly appears nearly decapitated.

Savvy Siblings

Cecilia Beaux’s “Portrait of Harold and Mildred Colton” (1887) depicts two young siblings -- she clenching an apple, he with a whip -- as savvy adults.

Budding sexuality is best here when subtly explored. In Frank Weston Benson’s “Gertrude” (1899), the dreaming sitter’s hands slip suggestively low in her opening lap.

A milkmaid’s full pail and the young farmer’s long, tilted hoe evoke palpable erotic tension between the two adolescents in Winslow Homer’s “A Temperance Meeting (Noon Time)” (1874).

John George Brown’s melodramatic image of a “tomboy” excited by a boy’s rifle is less intriguing than an unknown artist’s androgynous depiction of a young, stern boy wearing a dress and carrying a whip.

Playing Horsey

Far more compelling is Charles Dana Gibson’s print “The Nursery” (1906), in which a pleased-looking girl with a doll dominates the submissive boy, who is on his hands and knees playing horsey. (It is worth noting that the artist’s “Gibson Girl” helped emancipate women.)

Comprising more than 80 paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures, “Angels & Tomboys” would have benefited enormously had it branched out to Europe and included children’s portraits by Corot and Renoir, and also extended further into the 20th century, featuring Balthus, the preeminent master of the adolescent.

The show does not completely live up to the hype. Still, it is full of variety and surprises. Strong portrait photographs of street urchins by Jacob Riis give it sobering ballast and context.

They are among the show’s best and most honest artworks, in which the wide-ranging truths and raw mischief of childhood win out over sentimentality every time.

“Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art” has been extended through Jan. 20 at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington St., Newark, New Jersey. Information: +1-973-596-6550;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham’s podcast and Jeremy Gerard on theater.