By Helen Rosengren Freedman

Smile for the Birdy!

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Eighteen- and 19th-century Americans of the upper classes mimicked their British and European counterparts when it came to status. At a certain point, a portrait was commissioned and the family gathered to pose for posterity.

But the new exhibit, aptly titled “Group Dynamics”, at the New-York Historical Society, shows an upper crust society refreshingly warm-hearted in its attitude. You almost hear the mother standing behind the artist or photographer, entreating her brood to “smile for the camera.”

This is a charming show of large paintings, intricate sculpture, and amazing early photographs — and there are very few of the stiff poses you’d normally associate with the subject matter. Instead, a child is painted standing on her mother’s lap, one leg casually curled around the other; another is shown nestled into her mother’s bosom; another with her arm around her mother’s neck. Siblings pose happily together with their half-eaten apples and hoops about to be rolled; and two little girls flank their seated daddy, each with a hand on his knee. It’s hard to imagine any of these children being shipped off to boarding school!

Kids will enjoy seeing how youngsters wore their hair, how boys were dressed like girls, and how cats were cherished as family pets just as they are today. They can also see a daguerreotype camera and shroud, and the metal bird the photographer would perch in view to distract the littlest ones into smiling; such birds were dubbed “baby charmers”.

This exhibit is on view thru September 17. The New-York Historical Society is at 76th Street and Central Park West. It’s open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm. Admission: $10 adults; $6 students/seniors; under-12s are free. More information: (212) 873-3400;


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