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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755
603.646.2808
hood.museum@dartmouth.edu

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James Henry Cafferty, American, 1819-1869

Preparing to Fish
About 1846
Oil on canvas
Gift of Frank P. Stetz in memory of David Stewart Hull, Class of 1960; P.2004.83.12

 

In many nineteenth-century American genre paintings, the image of the country boy served as a metaphor for the youth, cunning, and unharnessed potential of the new nation itself. This rural scene of three boys also appears to offer a commentary on the stages of childhood. Placed in the center, the eldest boy commands the scene with his erect posture and direct gaze. Sporting a military-style cap and jacket, he baits the fishing line while assertively holding the rod like a staff. The next oldest child wears a similar outfit but a more boyish, country-style hat. He sits to one side with a dull expression and passively holds the basket of bait for his brother. The youngest boy, who wears simpler, less manly clothes, has apparently cast off his straw hat, which lies behind him. He does not engage in the fishing preparations but sits directly on the ground alongside a lamb—a symbol of gentleness and, in the Christian tradition, of Jesus Christ and his suffering. The youngest boy can thus be viewed as exhibiting certain freedoms from societal constraints and a greater proximity to nature and even to God. Like many mid-nineteenth-century images of children, this painting reflects a new appreciation of childhood as a distinct phase (or series of phases) of development. No longer viewed from birth as little adults, children were believed instead to come into the world with a beatific innocence that was to be nurtured and cherished for its own sake. Only gradually should a child assume the responsibilities and conventions of adulthood. In 1846, New York painter James Henry Cafferty exhibited this painting at the American Art-Union, a subscription organization that took pride in presenting works that would appeal to a wide national audience.

Last Updated: 4/29/09