Thu, Jul 26, 2007 - Page 15 News List

From little devils to innocents

Children in portraits were first depicted only as tiny adults, little devils, or props to their parents' ambition before evolving from brats to innocents as art reflected changing attitudes to childhood throughout Europe

By Antonia Fraser  /  The Guardian, London

Henry Raeburn's The Allen Brothers (1792).


"I cannot abide that passion for caressing new-born children," wrote the French essayist Montaigne towards the end of the 16th century. "I have never willingly suffered them to be fed in my presence." (Not a man for our own day, Montaigne.) He was reacting against the idea of "coddling" children. Montaigne's stoical acceptance of the deaths of five of his six children "without great sorrow" also belonged to an age when the demographics of child mortality meant that parents hardly dared attach themselves to their offspring before the age of 18 months or so. Fifty years after Montaigne, a neighbor reassured a woman who had recently given birth to her fifth "little brat" in the following, seemingly callous, words: "Don't worry. Before they are old enough to bother you, you will have lost half of them, or perhaps all of them."

The children who fared best, in terms of affection and lifestyle, were of course the essential heirs to the royal or noble houses. Pride in the dynasty was very often expressed in mother and child studies: one thinks of Anne of Austria and Louis XIV, then Louis XIV's own wife Marie Therese proudly with the Dauphin Louis, painted by Pierre Mignard, mother and son in matching red plumes, the modern equivalent of themed clothing. But pictorially these are tiny adults: there is no celebration of childhood here, only dignity of race or, one might say, arrogance of survival. Anne of Austria was considered eccentric in the amount of time she spent with Louis ("It is her great pleasure in life," wrote her lady-in-waiting in amazement). The treatment of Louis XIV's son was more normal. The cheerful little figure in his red plumes was not so cheerful in real life: the Dauphin Louis was beaten so often by his governor, Charles de Saint-Maure, duc de Montausier, that his spirit was completely cowed (as if it were not bad enough being the only legitimate child of the Sun King). Rank, in short, did not save even royals from being treated as little brats.

Where little brats and royals alike were concerned, however, an important shift in attitudes was coming. For one thing, they were surviving infancy, which led parents to be less concerned to suppress their affections; but most striking of all, yesterday's brats were discovered to be today's innocents. A manual of education, The Honest Boy, expressed a revolutionary sentiment: "Who would dare to say that God favors older people more than children? He favors them on account of their innocence, which comes close to sinlessness." This is a far cry from earlier doctrines of original sin - according to which children were born bad and had to have the devil beaten out of them.

'Infants incarnating virtue'

A ravishing new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, The Changing Face of Childhood, demonstrates the evolution of this new idea of innocence in a series of sublime portraits of youth by artists from Anthony van Dyck to Thomas Lawrence. The accompanying catalogue, edited by Mirjam Neumeister, is both sumptuous and illuminating. It shows a chilling image from the bad old days by Jan Steen, entitled Children Teaching a Cat to Dance. The pet is held cruelly upright, watched by a dog that is evidently just as vicious and waiting for the end of the "dance" to have his own fun. It is a relief to turn from this to a picture included in the exhibition: William Beechey's Portrait of Sir Francis Ford's Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy, painted in 1793, is the quintessential symbol of the change. This time a benevolent dog gazes on, while a ragged boy of perhaps 12, with no shoes and a depressed expression, extends his hand. Here is no human pet to be teased. Master Ford, exquisitely fair-haired under a merry black velvet plumed hat, and wearing a cherry-colored suit, watches sympathetically while his sister, equally fair, holds out her hand bearing alms. The two of them remind one of the famous exclamation of Pope Gregory the Great on seeing two blond children from the distant country of England: "Non Angli sed angeli." These are infants incarnating virtue: in this case charity.

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