On Canvas: It's Not Monsters Children Fear, It's Adults

The works of British-born American artist Seymour Joseph Guy depict the depressive influence adults have on the normal sexual nature of children.

Jonathan Hirschfeld

Now that I’m living in America, I’m determined to learn about and become an expert on American painting. I don’t intend to make do with looking at paintings and reading about them. Nor will I be satisfied with summoning up the sort of attention needed to develop a new set of sensitivities to taste, mannerisms and materiality. That’s because I intend to write, and there’s nothing like writing for learning.

I shall begin my journey into the depths of American painting by writing about two works by Seymour Joseph Guy. I’m quite sure that many readers have never heard of him. Nor had I until, in the corridor leading to the room containing works by Thomas Eakins in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I encountered a marvelous painting by Guy, which will be the subject of a another column.

Guy (1824-1910) is interested in the influence adults exert on children. One’s first instinct (which must always be resisted!) is to associate him with the tradition of genre painters of the kind we’ve been acquainted with since the early Baroque period, particularly in the low countries, whose theme is the sexual education of children. These are works constructed as verbal or visual allegories: the girl whose kitten has escaped or whose bird has escaped from its cage, or who has broken her milk jug or jar of water; the boy and the girl who are playing with a mouse trap and are of course bitten by mice; and so on (with the exception of Caravaggio’s “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” a masterpiece of monstrousness and endlessness in terms of the abundance of worlds it contains).

But Guy, who was born in England, and was educated as a painter of maritime landscapes, does not continue a tradition – he heralds one. This matter may be at the heart of Americanness: a relationship based on disruption of the European tradition.

This artist, then, is not out to supplement children’s education, but systematically examines, in dozens of paintings, the depressive effect adults exert on the normal sexual character of children. In Guy’s world, which slightly preceded that of Freud (1856-1939), it’s the adults who introduce the dark, the perverse and the flawed into the world of children. In one typical work, a mother who is reading a story to her children, casts a deep, frightening shadow upon the children’s faces.

In the painting reproduced here, “The Haunted Cellar (Who’s Afraid),” the children are playing outside. Their natural adventurousness and mischievousness leads them to a cellar. The cellar is dark, intriguing, alluring and frightening. Another boy and girl have already descended into it. The pair in the forefront, however, don’t dare. With marvelous skill, Guy depicts the duality in the body of the girl, who is both attracted and repulsed, and the boy, who is learning how to assume the role of leader but is looking for the confirmation of an adult outside the frame.

The atmosphere is one of normality and playfulness. These are not the corrupt children from the paintings of Balthus. (For those knowledgeable about modern art, the composition of this painting will recall a famous photograph by Jeff Wall; but if Wall was out to reference Guy, he missed the point and is actually closer to Balthus.)

These are good kids, educated and well groomed. They are not depraved, not wanton – their attitude toward the cellar is one of healthy curiosity. There is only one troubling question: Who told them the cellar is haunted?

Guy lived and worked in Brooklyn, where we, too, are now trying to make our home. Brooklyn is filled with his works. I find them quintessentially American, with both the connection to England and the disconnect. His works still reflect the paintings of children by Reynolds and other English Romantics. But these are his children: healthy, inquisitive American children, not the repressed and depressed Victorian variety. Here is the American ethos of independence, entrepreneurship and adventurousness. Not, obviously, without a certain Protestant conservatism. But the children’s simple clothes and their bare feet evoke the poetry of Walt Whitman and the philosophy of William James: America as a life-affirming land.

Guy’s painting draws on European frameworks, but liberates them from Europe’s mental illness – and, I would say, from its ghost.