Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Changing Face of Childhood. British Children's Portraits

Changing Face of Childhood. British Children's Portraits


Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Maria Christina of Bourbon-Naples, 1790, Oil on canvas, 121,5 x 92,5 cm, Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples. Courtesy: Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples.

FRANKFURT, GERMANY.- In the course of history, the view of childhood has again and again been subject to fundamental changes. Today, it has become perfectly natural to regard children as individuals with subjective needs, wishes, and interests who have ideas of their own concerning their life in society. Yet, the issue of children’s position in the family and the family’s position in society has been of essential importance long before 2007 of course. The origins of this development date back to the early eighteenth century. What provided the occasion for this exhibition on the evolution of children’s portraits in eighteenth-century England and its spread on the European continent was the recent purchase of the painting “The Children of Lord Cavendish” by Sir Thomas Lawrence by the Städel. The pictures shown reflect the new attitude towards childhood: inspired by John Locke’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings, this stage of life began to be understood as a significant period of human development. The portraits feature children as autonomous personalities whose sprightly naturalness also fascinates today’s public. The years covered span from Sir Anthony van Dyck by way of Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and Henry Raeburn to Friedrich von Amerling and Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The exhibition comprises loans from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Royal Collection – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and other institutions.

The exhibition is sponsored by the American Express Foundation. Additional support comes from the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation.

The English philosopher and Enlightenment thinker John Locke’s landmark treatise “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” was published in London in 1693 (German edition: Leipzig, 1708). Addressing the English gentry, but also the English middle classes, it called for a new concept of how to educate children: instead of raising them to become affected beings that imitate the behavior of grown-ups, their education should rather be aimed at supporting their natural talents. The objective was to get children used to a simple way of life and to instill them with a morally upright attitude so that they would be able to be of great use to society. The new understanding of their specific world informed new values since children were now not only regarded as descendants guaranteeing dynastic continuity but as persons with independent characters on whom the family’s care and pride focused.

The view of childhood as a decisive phase of life in which children develop to become autonomous personalities also exercised a formative influence on portrait painting. The Städel’s exhibition opens with Anthony van Dyck’s (1599–1641) portraits of “Maddalena Cattaneo” and “The Balbi Children,” which the artist painted during his stay in Italy in the 1620s. Despite the representative form of the pictures and the attributes documenting the children’s superior social status, van Dyck introduced his subjects as endearing childlike creatures. His understanding of portraiture was taken up by his successors and was still valid in the 18th century.

Yet, when Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) and Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) fell back on these models, they set new standards. The subjects of their portraits, like Reynold’s “Miss Crewe,” radiate a carefree presence thanks to the meticulous depiction of their childlike behavior, which is emphasized by the artist’s fresh and light brushwork. Landscapes constitute a crucial element of composition: Baroque staffages with their columns and balustrades hinting at sovereignty and land ownership are increasingly replaced with representations of pristine nature. Comparing Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits of “Master John Truman-Villebois and His Brother Henry” and “The Marsham Children,” which he painted in 1783 and 1787 respectively, exemplifies this shift. Hardly formed by man, the landscape corresponds with the children’s unrestrained natural behavior and provides an ideal environment for their play, which was regarded as an expression of their independent appropriation of the world. What came to bear here was the French-Swiss author, philosopher, and theorist of education Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence whose treatise “Emile: or, On Education” (1762) was also read widely in England. Rousseau assumed that all human beings are born with a good disposition. In order to escape the harmful influence of the notions and conventions advocated by society that deform their character, children should be brought up far from civilization in the countryside, in nature. Their guardian should always serve as a model and take care that children learn to rely on their reason when judging people, things, and society.

In its focused selection of 27 works, the exhibition presents only pictures of children unaccompanied by grown-ups in the open. “The Children of Lord Cavendish” by Thomas Lawrence from 1790 in its center provides a characteristic example for this kind of portrait illustrating the educational ideals of that time. The wild, rough terrain calls for the elder brothers to act responsibly: considerately, they hold their little sister by the hands. Their cheerful looks and rosy cheeks underscore that the three are growing up healthily and that their outlook upon the world is full of self-confidence. William Beechey’s (1753–1839) “Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy” conveys charity as a philanthropic ideal of education.

The approach of English children’s portrait painters soon spread all over Europe. Artists such as Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807), who visited England to see the admired models in the original, ensured the wide dissemination of this “modern” type of portrait. Her portrait of Henrietta Laura Pulteney is included in the exhibition. The novel understanding of children met with great interest on the part of the enlightened contemporaries on the continent: for the Weimar court, a center of enlightenment in Germany, Johann Friedrich August Tischbein (1750–1812) portrayed Count Karl August’s children in a park landscape. The scenery reminds us of the gardens on the Ilm river which the prince planned together with Goethe. The unusual portrait of “A Running Boy” by the Danish painter Jens Juel (1745–1802) also breathes the new principles of education, evidencing that sporting activities began to be considered a crucial part of education in those years.

The French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon’s assumption of power, and the wars that were caused by his expansionist ambitions and spread over almost all of Europe also molded the artists’ attitude. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s (1755–1842) close relationship with Marie-Antoinette became her undoing: because of her contacts with the royal court, she could not stay in France after the outbreak of the revolution. Painted in Naples, her “Portrait of Maria Christina of Bourbon,” Marie Antoinette’s niece, documents how the acclaimed artist tried to find her feet again in her exile. The child’s informal clothes, the sensual depiction of the fabrics, and the motif of picking roses show Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun employing patterns of representation she had already used for her portraits of the Queen of France.

For the European princes’ alliance against the “usurper,” Napoleon’s defeat in the Battle of Waterloo marked a great triumph. King Georg IV commissioned Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) to paint portraits of the military and political leaders who had made this victory possible, which were then show


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