The Babes in the Wood

Artist: Thomas Crawford (American, New York 1813?–1857 London)

Date: ca. 1850, carved 1851

Medium: Marble

Dimensions: 17 x 49 x 33 1/2 in. (43.2 x 124.5 x 85.1 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Bequest of Hamilton Fish, 1894

Accession Number: 94.9.4


The Babes in the Wood was one of Crawford's most stirring creations, according to contemporary accounts, and one of his most popular. Crawford derived this work from an old English ballad, "The Norfolk Gentleman's Last Will and Testament" (also known as "The Children in the Wood"), as well as a more familiar nursery rhyme, "The Babes in the Wood." An earlier version of this rhyme describes how death ended the grief of two young children, while clasped in one another's arms. They were left with no proper burial, only a nearby robin to cover them with leaves. Crawford's sculpture captures the little boy and his younger sister as they pass without fear into eternal slumber, an interpretation underscored by the white marble and the untroubled expressions on the children's faces. The poignant group is an example of the Victorian attempt to soften the anguish of death by treating it with bittersweet sentimentality. This type of Neoclassical funerary sculpture replaced the previous period's tormented baroque compositions (including skeletons and other symbols of bleakness) with calm and pious scenes where reason and tranquility reign; in these new monuments, death is equated with sleep.
In The Babes in the Wood, Crawford has painstakingly recorded illustrative detail. The children's forest deathbed is incised with floral motifs and littered with marble acorns and leaves—a preoccupation with surface minutiae that is a hallmark of nineteenth-century sculpture, as are the intricately worked old-English-style costumes worn by the children. The boy's jacket, a contemporary interpretation of the doublet of three centuries earlier, is edged with a piccadil, or scalloped border; the girl's simple, shapeless gown, while less specific in period, has a timeless, classical appeal.