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A Crisis of Innocence

1. What is Innocence?

The Age of Innocence

Joshua Reynold's "The Age of Innocence" (1788)

Historians of childhood and scholars of children’s literature and culture have long asserted that the 'innocence' our culture takes for granted as the 'natural' or inherent state of the child is actually a socially constructed model of childhood that gained widespread acceptance in the Romantic era. While children had been regarded as innocent to one degree or another since at least classical times, it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that innocence came to be seen as the principle and defining characteristic of childhood, and as a state in constant need of protection. A shift in attitudes toward childhood occurred for a variety of reasons, chiefly because a rising middle class that no longer required labour from its children, and that was not part of the hereditary land-owning classes, was now able to think of their children primarily in affective terms. The removal of their children from the public spheres of work and of aristocratic display gave rise to the view of childhood as an untainted state requiring protection. The world of childhood came to be seen as a retreat from adulthood, and was increasingly associated with an idealized natural, pre-lapsarian world. Indeed, as Anne Higonnet suggests in Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (1998), this association of childhood with nature has helped to make the connection itself seem natural: “Because it looks natural, the image of childhood innocence looks timeless, and because it looks timeless, it looks unchangeable.”

Among the most celebrated Romantic portrayals of the natural and uncorrupted child, disconnected from the world of adult knowledge and experience was Joshua Reynolds's 'The Age of Innocence' (1788). Higonnet observes of this painting that it captures one of the key features of childhood innocence, distance from adult sexuality:

“The parts of the body so prominently displayed are exactly those least closely associated with adult sexuality, a difference reinforced by the child’s clothing, which wafts in pure white drifts across what would be adult erogenous zones. This opposite of adult sexuality appears natural. The child belongs so comfortably in nature that she doesn’t need shoes, as the picture insists by pointing tiny toes right at us” (15).

No Walk Today

Sophie Gengembre Anderson, 'No Walk Today' (c.1870?)

In the century and a half between Reynolds's portrait and the crisis over children and comic books this exhibition explores, the visual cues and specific features that mark innocence shifted with changing aesthetic sensibilities but remained recognizable, as we can see from Sophie Anderson's mid-Victorian portrait, 'No Walk Today.' The child's distant, wistful gaze suggests distraction from the world of the present, and her liminal placement between the domestic space and the natural world hints at vulnerability and the need for protection. As Robin Bernstein argues in Racial Innocence (2012), innocence became by the nineteenth century racially coded as well, visually characterized by a northern European model of blue-eyed, blonde-haired whiteness.

The idea that childhood exists – or should exist – largely outside of, even disconnected from, the world of adult knowledge (of death, violence, corruption, sex, etc.) has persisted. As an idea that justifies adult control of the child’s access to various forms of experience and knowledge, innocence ultimately works to assert adult authority over children. James Kincaid, who sees innocence as "an absence" rather than an actual attribute of childhood, suggests in Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (1994) that it "is a faculty needed not at all by the child but very badly by the adult who put it there in the first place” (73).

Innocence continues to structure our culture’s intergenerational relationships.  It shapes the environments in which we place children and, of course, the cultural products we offer them and expect them to enjoy.  It authorizes practice and discourse around childhood in legal and legislative contexts.  Specifically it mandates 'protection' from certain kinds of knowledge and experience identified as adult, and on whose exclusion the child’s natural state of “innocence” depends.