Imagining American Girlhood

On view July 24, 2015 - December 31, 2015

The concept of girlhood in America has constantly changed throughout the course of the nation and artists have played an important role in picturing and shaping these transformations. From the colonial period through the 18th century, Americans held an outlook diametrically opposed to how we think about youth today. They considered children to be miniature adults, who, because they were born with original sin, were inherently corrupt and needed to be trained to become “good” adults.

But with the emergence of the middle class in the 19th century, these notions changed dramatically. People of means, who lived primarily in cities, began to see childhood and girlhood specifically as an idyllic phase of life distinct from adulthood. This new conception drew upon the ideas of the European Enlightenment and the American Transcendentalists. Now girls were seen as pure, uncorrupted souls whose closeness to nature rendered them nearer to heaven. 19th –century artists created sentimental images of girls that offered adults a haven from the dizzying effects of modern life while catering to their nostalgia for a perceived carefree time.

By the late 20th century, many artists moved away from using girlhood solely as a means for adults to project their anxieties, hopes, and yearnings. These artists often challenged notions of girlhood as an Edenic state, choosing instead to explore the complexities of an individual’s experience of being a girl.

Sally Mann (b. 1951), Untitled, At Twelve Series (Jennifer, mother and bow), 1988, silver gelatin print, Museum purchase, 2011.3