Portland Maine is a funky little city on the Atlantic coast with great restaurants, lovely parks and wharves, and immensely photogenic lighthouses. And it’s home to the Portland Museum of Art, where one can spend a pleasant afternoon browsing the galleries. Given my interest in the history of interpersonal life, I often look at paintings for clues about how people thought and behaved in various historical eras, and the Portland Museum has several good examples of 17th and 18th century American family portraiture that demonstrate the fascinating tendency then to depict children as miniature adults, almost indistinguishable in appearance from actual adults except for their height. This is quite striking and fairly common — not limited to a particular artist. This has often been interpreted as evidence that the understanding of childhood has greatly changed over the years.
Children were depicted in formal adult garb with adult-like faces, even on toddlers (you can see an example of this on page 81 of my book). Then, childhood was brief and adolescence wasn’t as it has come to be, a protected period understood to be developmentally important, in which youth work on self identity. Often in the past, as soon as they were physically able, children became apprentices or worked in service, or worked as laborers on the family farm, perhaps as young as ten years old. Self identity didn’t need to be worked on. It was not a personal quest. it was a given. The family was not an emotional haven in the way we expect of it today, but an economic unit, with children valued for the help they brought to the household labor force. In today’s family pictures, to the extent that the generations look the same, it is generally that adults now dress like youths. There has been a profound inversion of cultural values about age. And, increasingly, the quest for self identity, if it ends at all, doesn’t end in adolescence, bubbling along through the entire course of life.
The Portland Museum also has some examples of impressionist art, including a small Renoir that depicts a man and a female friend, seated together, her hands on his shoulder as the two look intently into a newspaper the man is holding. There is no one else around. They seem to be in a private space engaged in the mutual interpretation of a news story. The painting is titled ‘Confidences’, and it’s one of several Renoir painted with that same name. If you google “Renoir confidences” and click the images tab you can see some of them. They each depict two people in intimate dialogue, close together, in one case one whispering in the other’s ear. So, by the last quarter of the 19th Century, with modernity well along in its many transformations of Western society, one of history’s great artists chose for his subject people in private talk — exchanging confidences. This seemed appropriate for the cover of my book. Intimate talk is modern.
In earlier periods marriages may have been affectionate, but they weren’t likely to have been intimate. Husbands and wives were more likely to think of themselves as yolk mates (linked together like oxen pulling a plow), than soul mates (linked together in shared dreams). Relationships weren’t constituted by a private skein of negotiated understanding; they were held together by law, religion, and economic necessity. As for marital conversation, according to historian Carmen Martin Gaite, in 18th century Spain, conversations between husbands and wives were so highly conventionalized, so guided by cultural formulas and scripts, that no personal meaning may have ever been exchanged between them. In these circumstances marital talk functions not as a negotiation of private meaning, but like a form of public ritual, akin to the call-and-response of some church services.
Richard Sennett’s masterwork, The Fall of Public Man, describes how modernity moved discourse from scripted presentation in public spaces to increasingly private spaces, from coffee houses and town squares, to progressively more intimate locations. This is certainly true in the family. In the past, the family was a public unit of society. Not much happened between members that was hidden from view. The family wasn’t an intimate group. People walked in and out of each other’s spaces, lived and slept in the same room with their children and their apprentices (and sometimes their livestock). Walls of houses often didn’t extend to the ceiling, meaning that conversation could be overheard (as in modern office cubicles). As there was so much less diversity in the culture, people could assume common values and perspective with those around them. But, as modernity gained momentum, diversity grew in leaps and bounds and the public gave way to the private. As people moved from small towns and farms to the diversity of cities, as tradition and religion faded in influence eroding common values, people could no longer assume that those around them shared their points of view. So houses changed. Their designs were altered to provide front rooms where callers could be received formally, without being admitted to the intimate spaces of the household. Material changes like this reflect psychological and sociological change. Living in cities means encountering strangers and so, there, trust in others is no longer a given. Uncertainty pervades. And those few relationships where we do trust and share ourselves become extremely vivid and important in our lives
City dwellers have to be careful about those they meet as a stranger may not be whom they seem to be. As urbanization ramped up, people became conscious of the need to prepare defensive public facades to manage relations with those outside their small circle of trusted intimates. T.S. Eliot, writing in 1915, spoke of the need then “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. And, indeed, surviving records of household inventories demonstrate that, prior to the 19th century, most houses had just one mirror. However, as time advanced, mirrors became increasingly common and were placed in virtually every room of the house, suggesting a growing concern with the manipulation of public appearance, and, consequentially, a growing awareness that there is a public world, a world in which many may manipulate presentation, a world of potential threat. And that world stands against a private one shared with a limited number of trusted intimates — those few with whom confidences can be shared, or created. And, in another twist on ‘confidences’, the move to cities that occurred with such dramatic speed in the late 19th century gave rise to the ‘confidence man’, or as we say today ‘con men’, the stranger who exploits the increasingly uncertain reality of self presentation to trick people out of money. Thus, as modernity gained force, the public world became infused with uncertainty and even threat, and, without a period of acquaintance, people could no longer afford to immediately trust each other, which gave rise to the private world of intimate relationships bound together in privately shared points of view created in talk — confidences.