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Angels & Tomboys and Surveying George Washington Now on Exhibit at Crystal Bridges

July 20, 2013 Destination North America No Comments Email Email

Summertime visitors to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art have a chance to enjoy two new exhibitions. Angels & Tomboys focuses on the view of females in America through different eras, while Surveying George Washington sheds light on the nation’s Revolutionary period. Both will be on view through September 28.
Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art
Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art highlights the interval following the Civil War, when artists began to emphasize the importance of children — particularly young girls — as the symbol of hope for a nation damaged and divided by war.

“Children, especially girls, were often the subject of post-Civil War paintings, as they represented the future and moving forward as a nation reunited,” explains Kevin Murphy, Crystal Bridges’ curator of American art. “These are the girls who became the ‘New American Woman,’ and what they were able to accomplish after the Civil War lead to a certain amount of freedom for subsequent generations. The girls depicted in these artworks grew up to be the mothers of suffragettes, and the grandmothers of women like Rosie the Riveter, represented in the Norman Rockwell work in our permanent collection.”

Victorian-era portraits of young children display little difference between boys and girls, outside of a held hammer or a necklace. At the time, it was customary for both sexes to wear dresses until the age of four or five until boys were “breeched,” or put into pants.

The exhibition emphasizes symbolic attributes in artistic renderings. For instance: pets, dolls and flowers become associated with girls to represent nurturing. These developments moved on to female children portrayed as angelic creatures outside the real world, with no link to environment. The show’s dichotomy places images of these girls on pedestals, opposite images of tomboys – showing how towards the end of the era, girlhood was no longer defined by its earlier simplistic representations.

The exhibition includes approximately 72 masterworks, including paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs. Works by John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, together with those by leading women artists such as Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt, reveal a new, provocative psychological element not found in early Victorian portraiture; while the mischievous tomboys in Lilly Martin Spencer’s paintings and the pure angels in the works of Abbot Handerson Thayer underscore the complexity of girlhood.

“Thayer applies paint in a way that no one really does at the time. He’s going beyond the impressionistic brush stroke into this almost very abstract expressionism,” explains Murphy. “When you look closely at the work you recall the work of people like Jackson Pollack later in the 20th century. So he’s a really interesting figure and it’s spectacular.”

Murphy adds the Thayer piece came from the Smithsonian and is very fragile, as is the frame. “This is a Stanford White frame. We have a spectacular Stanford White frame on our The Fortune Teller by Thomas Wilmer Dewing [in the main gallery],” says Murphy.

Crystal Bridges also has a small Thayer watercolor in its collection. Murphy adds that it is difficult to obtain any works by Thayer. “So, Crystal Bridges can’t ever get an image by Thayer like this. We may never even be able to get a major image by Thayer of any kind because they are very rare. You can get a Rothko much easier than you can get something like this.”

Murphy says he loves the exhibition because it contains some artists also found in the museum’s permanent collection, which allows people to see greater depth of these artists. “But then we’re introducing you to artists that you may have not seen unless you go to New York or Washington or Los Angeles. So it’s a great mixture,” he explains.

The exhibit also explores the relationship between girls and their mothers and siblings. Another section deals with early adolescence and children taking on some of the responsibilities of womanhood. Lighter scenes show girls dressing up, while darker ones hint at a burgeoning nascent sexuality. “They are certainly not images that we would find people doing today, but it was a different era,” Murphy explains. “And, sometimes as much as I like the exhibition because it sort of shows us to a certain extent the continuity between us and the 19th century, there are also differences. We are not 19th century people and we have different kinds of ways of thinking.”

Morality tales of pursuing fashion and letting other things go by the wayside are also addressed in paintings, as are the joys and burden of work and education. You see the developing contribution of girls as they become more educated. Two embroidered tapestries show their ability to sew but also to read and write, signaling educational and domestic arts achievement.

Another transition – the depiction of women as primary educators. Before the Civil War, only men were allowed to teach. Sculptures in the exhibit also show the importance of educating former slaves.

Angels & Tomboys
 ends at adolescence, and includes Mary Cassatt’s The Reader, which previously hung in the Crystal Bridges main gallery. It will return there at the end of this special exhibit. “We’re able to put her in the same company that she existed within the gallery. So we have her with Thomas Eakins, and with Winslow Homer, and she’s typically next to a Winslow Homer in our own gallery,” Murphy says. “It’s nice to be able to see her in a little different setting by the same artists that we normally show her with.”

Angels & Tomboys is organized by the Newark Museum and was previously exhibited at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Tickets are $5 for adults and free for ages 18 and under. Museum members receive free admission to all exhibitions. Tickets may be purchased online at, or at the Guest Services desk.

Surveying George Washington 

Exhibited concurrently but in a separate gallery space, Surveying George Washington features an assortment of historical documents on loan from The Harlan R. Crow Library in Dallas, including documents written by Washington himself and his contemporaries.

The exhibition spans the breadth of Washington’s life. Among those featured: a land survey prepared by Washington at age 19; a hand-written letter to General John Cadwalader of the Pennsylvania militia, appealing to him for troops against British outposts in New Jersey during the War for Independence; and a hand-written letter by Washington’s private secretary Tobias Lear, announcing Washington’s death in 1799. Also included is a first edition of George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, printed from the record of the County Court of Fairfax, 1800.

“The show that we have assembled for you gives an opportunity to see parts of George Washington illuminated that you may have learned at one point and forgotten, or maybe you never knew,” says Niki Stewart, Crystal Bridges’ director of education and exhibitions. “We look at the five different phases of his life.”

The primary phase, covering Washington’s life first as a child and then as a young farmer learning how to survey land, begins with a drawing he made at the age of 12. There’s also a lease for Mount Vernon, which he bought from his brother’s widow.

The second section covers his early years in the military. “Many of us may have forgotten that he began his career in military service working for the crown. He was a British soldier before he was an American soldier,” Stewart adds. He was building a career and getting paid in money and land. “In fact, if he had been promoted a little bit faster, he may have never left the British army and well, then, I wonder who would be on our dollar bill.”

The third part moves into George Washington as a general in the American army. “He, in fact, did not take a salary; he asked only that his expenses be covered,” she explains. The exhibit also looks at his presidency as well as his legacy.

“His life and death were incredibly famous all throughout America,” says Stewart. “I can only equate it to when Charles and Diana got married and everybody bought plates with their faces on them, or books or copies of their ceremony. People purchased copies of George Washington’s will to have at home on their bookshelves.”

On the second page of the copy of the will on display in the exhibit, a child once practiced his or her handwriting over the text. While the document is behind glass, an interactive display lets visitors flip through the pages to see more. “Everything in here has a great story,” Stewart adds. The touch-screen kiosk provides the opportunity to virtually handle a few key documents in the exhibition.

No tickets are required, and there is no admission fee to view Surveying George Washington. Space is limited, however, and admission is first-come, first-served.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is located in Bentonville. The museum is open every day but Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Additional information about Crystal Bridges is available online at

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