Freed from the Frame: Beyond the Childhood Portrait

See Portraits of Children and Follow their Lives into Adulthood

Children today photograph and share their every silly expression in selfies, but in the 19th century, it took much more effort to capture a child’s image. Before the invention of photography, artists were commissioned to paint portraits of children, a slow and painstaking process. In our new exhibit, Freed from the Frame: Beyond the Childhood Portrait, Historic Newton displays six portraits from our collection and also follows the lives of the children into adulthood. Research into each child’s life paints a more complete portrait than what you see inside the frame. Photos of grown children and objects that belonged to some of them help fill out the stories. The exhibit runs through January 2018 at the Jackson Homestead.


Drop-in activities connect to themes in the lives of the people shown in the portraits. Themes change each month. Through August 12, visitors are invited to play popular 19th century board games, including chess and the less familiar spillkins and nine men’s morris. Upcoming activities explain the life of a lumberjack and look at 19th century clothing.


The lives of the children in the portraits reflect major events and cultural shifts in 19th century America. One boy, Joseph Cushing Edmands, became a colonel in the Civil War. The sword he carried into battle and his ceremonial sword and scabbard are also on display in the exhibit.


When Maria Louisa Wiswall became an orphan, her distant relative, William Jackson, took her into the household at the Jackson Homestead. Later she attended a female seminary, benefiting from a social movement to educate women. Next to her portrait is a leather box with her initials on top that she used to carry her personal effects.


Other subjects of the portrait went on to fulfill more traditional gender roles. Men traveled the world, while women grew up to marry and raise families of their own.


The exhibit is open at the Jackson Homestead during regular museum hours, Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Please stop by to learn more about Newton children who grew up in the 19th century.

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