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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Children, as Seen by Artists

The Rockwell child. Was childhood ever this sweet and innocent?
It's a very old quandary among art historians--does art influence society or merely reflect it? Though often posed as an "either/or" question, it's really not. Perhaps we should ask, "Does art influence society more than merely reflecting it?" Even asked from a relative point of view, there is no easy answer, which would explain why the debate has gone on for generations. While the question may seem to be of rather esoteric, marginal importance, when we begin to look at various aspects of our social framework as related to art, the question (or some variation) keeps coming up. Today, for instance, the question is often asked, does our pop culture influence young people, or merely reflect their lifestyles? One way or another, it's still the same basic question. In looking at the way children have been depicted by artists down through the centuries we come face to face with a similar variation, was that depiction an influence or a reflection.
Alba Madonna (detail), 1519, Raphael--more than just two squirming children.
We could look at this from a historical perspective, hoping to gain some insight; but suffice to say that the art of virtually every historic culture has its children. Moreover, it would be largely pointless to pursue these cultural depictions simply because the "reflective" element is so obvious and the "influential" factors all but impossible to prove without a specific, historic awareness of this aspect of art and culture from the various eras. Such insightful recorded history simply doesn't exist until at least the 18th century and the gradual development of what we today term the "social sciences." Until that time, children came cheap. They were a labor commodity. The Bible portrays them as barely one notch above slaves. Raising children was considered something parents did naturally, based totally upon their own upbringing. They were loved, even adored, but barely more than "props" insofar as artists were concerned. The one major exception to this rule, had to do with just one child--Jesus.
The Peasant Dance, 1568, Pieter Brueghel. The children get one corner.
Boy Asleep over his Book,
1755, Jean-Baptiste Grueze
But as broadly and deeply as the boy Jesus was portrayed by artists (Raphael practically made a career of it), Jesus, from infant through adolescence, was so much the exception as to prove immaterial in studying the manner in which artists have related to children. Also, I'm not talking about portraits here. Portraits, especially those of children, are the province of the well-to-do, and in their own way, as exceptional as Jesus. Perhaps the best place to look in order to gain some insight into both the social and artistic presence of children is in the area of genre painting. And with few exceptions, genre painting, as we know it today, was a product of the 16th century, beginning with the Dutch painter, Pieter Brueghel (above), though he was mostly interested in the daily lives of adults. Children were barely more than peripheral amusements--very likely an accurate accounting of their place in the family and in the broader scheme of things at the time.
Boy and Girl with a Cat and Eel,
1635, Judith Leyster
A hundred years later, when Judith Leyster painted A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel (left), children had begun to take center stage (count on a woman to lead the way in this regard). The Dutch might wll be credited for discovering the "cuteness factor" in painting children. Around the same time, the gritty street urchin can be seen in the paintings of Spanish artist, Bartolome Murillo. In the 18th century, children in art took on a more or less equal role with that of family pets, again very likely an apt comparison in a broader sense. Often in such works, it's something of a toss-up whether it's the child or the animal taking on the center of interest. Jean Baptiste Greuze (above, right) seems to have had an affinity for children, painting them often and with great insight into their character and the nature of childhood.
Off to School, 1883, Charles Burton Barber--is it a girl with her dog or a dog with its girl?
Camille Roulin, 1888, Vincent van Gogh
In the 19th century, painters as diverse as English artist, Charles, Burton Barber (above) and Vincent van Gogh (right) became infatuated with children. American artists, especially, began to recognize children as more than "little adults." Again it was the popularity of genre painting, now having moved up from the bottom of the painters' hierarchy to at least mid-way between landscapes and portraits, which we have to thank for more than a mere glimpse into what it was like to be a child in that era. And for the first time, we begin to consider with some basis of validity that artists were starting to influence the role of children in society. Artists depicted parents reading their offspring bedtime stories. Did that influence parents or merely reflect common practice? During the latter half of the century, American artists such as Seymour Joseph Guy, John George Brown, and Abbott Fuller Graves, turned to children as the main focus of their art.

The Problem We All Live With, 1963, Norman Rockwell--children as a problem.
In the 20th century, there can be little doubt artists made their influence felt as they began inventing stereotypical children. Norman Rockwell (top) practically defined childhood in America for more than fifty years. During the 21st century and much of the 20th century before, no other art form has influenced the way we view children more than that of photography and motion pictures. Painting children was a long, slow, laborious process. Today, photography is practically instantaneous, both in making images and spreading them through social media. Today, for better or worse, we've come to worship childhood, cherishing it, and feverishly protecting it. There can be little doubt that art has had a major role, first in reflecting, and now in influencing the place children occupy in society (above). Art has elevated the role of children from a peripheral, cheap-labor commodity to that of idolized ideal. Moreover, children are no longer just "in" art, but are now, themselves, making it, and thus influencing art.

copyright, Jim Lane
Children in Venice at the Peggy Guggenhiem Museum roll marbles coated in tempera.
Children today begin "influencing" art as soon as they learn not to eat the paint.



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