As you explore The Huntington’s galleries and gardens you will encounter those familiar little figures: playful young boys who feature frequently in works of art. Whether carved in stone or painted on canvas, they are so common that we take them for granted. But what exactly are they? We label them “cherubs” or “Cupids”, yet often they are neither. One might be a young Bacchus, god of wine and ecstatic visions, or simply a generic “putto” (plural “putti”), the Italian word (meaning “boy”) used to classify such forms. Originating in pagan antiquity, these special boys have been claimed to represent angels, demons, sensations, and emotions. Sacred or profane, ancient or modern, the infant figure embodies some aspect of the human spirit. In short, it is a spirit boy.
This exhibition of 15 works on paper from the Huntington’s collections takes the viewer on a journey. We begin in Renaissance Italy and end in early 20th-century Southern California, looking at the evolution of the spirit boy over time. Along the way, various aesthetic and historical developments leave their mark on his appearance. From prints after Raphael to pencil sketches by Henry Fuseli to chromolithographs advertising California citrus, a diverse set of images reveal the remarkable hold of the spirit boy over the artistic imagination.