Child-life in Art



O child! O new-born denizen
Of life’s great city! on thy head
The glory of the morn is shed,
Like a celestial benison!
Here at the portal thou dost stand,
And with thy little hand
Thou openest the mysterious gate
Into the future’s undiscovered land.




If we could gather into one great gallery all the paintings of child-life which the world has ever produced, there would be scattered here and there some few works of a distinctly unique character, before which we should rest so completely satisfied that we should quite forget to look at any others. These choice gems are the work of those rare men of genius who, looking beyond all trivial circumstances and individual peculiarities, discovered the essential secrets of child-life, and embodied them in ideal types. They are pictures of childhood, rather than of children, representing those phases of thought and emotion which are peculiar to the child as such, and which all children possess in common. In their presence every mother spontaneously exclaims, “How like my own little one!” because the artist has interpreted the real child nature. Such pictures may justly take rank among the highest productions of creative art, having proven their claim to greatness by their unquestioned appeal to universal admiration.

In work of this kind one name alone is prominent, a name which England is proud to claim as hers, but to which all the world pays honor,—the name of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Prince of Child-painters. A simple-hearted man, of sweet, kindly disposition, the great portrait-painter, bachelor though he was, possessed in rare measure the mysterious gift of winning the confidence of children. The great octagonal studio in Leicester Square must have often resounded to the laughter of childish voices, as he entertained his little patrons with the pet dogs and birds he used in their portraits, and coaxed them into good nature with a thousand merry tricks. Although the greater number of these little people belonged to the most wealthy and aristocratic families in England, their pictures do not in any way indicate their rank. Still less do they show any distinguishing marks of the artificial age in which they lived. Dressed in the simplest of costumes, of the sort which is never out of fashion and always in the best taste, and posed in the natural attitudes of unconscious grace, they are representatives of childhood, pure and simple, rather than of any particular social class or historical period.

A list of Sir Joshua’s child pictures may suitably begin with one which, in his own opinion, is among the best and most original of all his works. This is the Strawberry Girl, exhibited in 1773, and repeated many times by the painter,—“not so much for the sake of profit,” as Northcote explains, “as for improvement.” The model was the artist’s pretty niece, Miss Theophila (“Offy”) Palmer, who was named for his mother, and whom he loved as an own daughter.

The little girl stands with head slightly drooping, in the sweet, shy way so natural to a timid child. The big eyes are lifted to ours half confidingly, half timidly, while a smile hovers bewitchingly over the mouth. A long, pointed basket hangs on one arm, and the plump hands are folded together in front like a little woman’s. The child wears a curious round cap on her head, under which, presumably, her hair is gathered up in womanly fashion, for there are no stray locks to be seen except the two soft curves on the forehead. Altogether, the figure presents just that odd commingling of dignity with childish timidity which we so often notice in our own little maids, and which makes them at once so lovable and so womanly.

the strawberry girl.—reynolds.

Some fifteen years after Sir Joshua’s niece posed as the Strawberry Girl, her own little daughter, another “Offy,” served the artist uncle as the model for Simplicity. The great-niece was as lovely a child as her mother had been, and critics agree in placing Simplicity among the best works of the painter. The setting is a landscape, in the foreground of which the child is seated, with her lap full of flowers. The sweet face is turned aside in a somewhat pensive poise, and the exquisite purity of its expression is exactly represented by the title. Of a similar character is the Age of Innocence, which portrays a little girl looking out into the world with wide eyes and parted lips, a complete embodiment of the innocence of childhood on the threshold of life. The face, which is presented in profile, is finely cut, and charmingly framed in short, clustering curls.

In looking for ideal types among the child-pictures of Sir Joshua Reynolds, we need by no means be confined to those which bear fancy titles. His portraits are as truly interpretative as his imaginative subjects, and each typifies a distinct element of child-life. The little Miss Bowles sitting on the ground hugging her dog, and Master Bunbury looking out of the canvas with breathless eagerness, arouse a universal interest, which is entirely independent of their individuality. Miss Frances Harris, the serene, and Miss Penelope Boothby, the demure, will be loved as child ideals long after their names are forgotten.

A protégé of Reynolds from the first, Lawrence became his successor as Painter-in-Ordinary to the King, and in process of time rose to the proud honor of the presidency of the Royal Academy. Holding thus the two positions which Reynolds had graced so many years, it may be said that the master’s mantle fell upon him more truly than upon any other follower.

In technique his painting is criticised by connoisseurs as deficient in that harmonious blending of the flesh tints with the background which so delights us in other artists. Then, too, his insight into character was far less penetrating than that of his predecessor. Nevertheless, his best work has much of the beauty and animation which we so admire in the paintings of Reynolds.

One of his notable pictures is the portrait of Master Lambton, son of Lord Durham, sometimes called, in imitation of the Blue Boy of Gainsborough, the Red Boy. The painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824, where it is said to have completely turned the heads of French critics, so fascinating was the aristocratic melancholy of the beautiful boy it represented.

For a companion piece to this picture, one might choose the portrait of Mr. Peel’s daughter, which is considered an exceptionally fine work.

Lawrence’s groups of mothers with their children are especially worthy of study. The most famous of these are Lady Dover, with her son, Lord Clifden, in her arms, and the Countess Gower, with her little daughter Elizabeth on her lap.

The latter has been carried by the engraver’s art into nearly every country of the world, and often appears under the title, “Maternal Love.” Both mother and child are looking with intense interest in the direction toward which the little girl points an eager finger. The child’s face is full of vivacious beauty, the sparkling eyes and parted lips perfectly representing the alert, imaginative type of child nature.

The finest of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s child pictures is undoubtedly the portrait of the Calmady children, better known by the title of “Nature.” This is indeed a picture disclosing the essential truth of the child nature; the two little ones are frolicking together in a perfect abandon of innocent merriment.

The pretty story of the sittings in which this portrait was obtained, is a key to its success. The children romped with the artist as with a boon companion, and the younger relieved the monotony of the hour by relating to him the nursery tales of Dame Wiggins, and the Field Mice and Raspberry Cream. Thus the painter won the confidence of his little friends, and delineated them in all the fresh charm of their youthful vivacity. Nature deserves a place beside Simplicity as a true picture of the heart of childhood.

But after all has been said concerning the child pictures in any way similar to those of Sir Joshua Reynolds, it must still be admitted that his work is entirely unique in what may be termed the universality of its idealism. Other pictures of child-life there are,—many of them of equal and even of superior merit as works of art,—which are marked by a fine quality of idealism; but this idealism is limited in its range to the delineation of individuals, or of particular classes. These pictures naturally fall into groups based upon the social classes which they represent, and by this method of classification, they will be considered in the subsequent chapters.

penelope boothby.—reynolds.

Miss Penelope’s face is one of the most familiar of Sir Joshua’s art children, and the first favorite with many for the arch loveliness of her expression. Although her mouth is set in a prim little pucker, we cannot repress the suspicion that behind it lurks a good deal of childish fun. The big mob cap and the voluminous mitts add not a little to the quaint charm of the picture, and make it easily recognized by many who are otherwise unfamiliar with Reynolds’s works.

As it was a fashion of eighteenth century art to draw subjects largely from classic mythology, we find among Sir Joshua’s child pictures an Infant Bacchus, an Infant Jupiter, and an Infant Hercules. This last was painted to fill a commission from the Empress Catherine of Russia, and is a powerful representation of the young hero, seated on wolf-skins, strangling serpents.

Mercury as a Postman and Cupid as a Link-Boy are companion pieces, painted from the same model,—a mischievous young street boy, whose simulated gravity is irresistibly droll. The artist’s keen sense of humor is seen again in that most captivating little rogue, Puck. The saucy elf is perched on a mushroom, resting after a frolic, and apparently plotting new escapades.

A complete enumeration and description of Reynolds’s child pictures would fill a bulky volume, so eagerly, through a period of over thirty years, were the great portrait painter’s services demanded by all the distinguished families of the day. Of special interest and beauty are some of the portraits of mothers with their children. The lovely Lady Waldegrave, clasping her babe to her breast, is one of these, while another is the celebrated beauty, the Duchess of Devonshire, playing with her infant daughter. A charming group is Lady Cockburn and her Boys, which has been engraved under the title of the Roman matron Cornelia and her Children. It is said of this splendid production, that when it was brought into the Royal Academy exhibition to be hung, it was greeted by the assembly of painters with a great demonstration of applause. It is no wonder, then, that this should be one of the few paintings to which the master attached his signature.

angel heads.—reynolds.

Our list of Reynolds’s pictures would be defective without some mention of the famous Angel Heads, which is peculiarly a representative work. It consists of a cluster of little cherubs, representing, in five different expressions, the delicate features of a single face, whose original was Miss Frances Isabella Gordon. Painted in 1786, near the close of his great career, it seems to gather up into a harmonious whole those several aspects of childhood which Sir Joshua’s long and wide experience had revealed to him as the typical movements of the child mind.

The five totally dissimilar expressions embody those varying attitudes of mind which the child may successively assume in any critical experience of its young life. The clear-cut profile of the lower face at the left suggests the face of the child in the Age of Innocence who first confronts the problem of life. The one just above has the thoughtful poise of the little girl Simplicity, pondering over an important question, while the remaining heads stand for those imaginative and emotional moods which complete the cycle of human experience.


The original of this beautiful picture[1] is in the National Gallery at London, and fortunate indeed are they who have the privilege of standing before it to delight their eyes with the blonde loveliness of the sweet faces, framed in aureoles of golden ringlets.

It would be difficult to estimate the incalculable influence which the life and work of Sir Joshua Reynolds have exerted on the progress of art in the past century. The influence of his paintings was supplemented by the series of discourses which it was his duty as President of the Royal Academy to deliver annually on subjects of art criticism. His unparalleled success brought forth many followers and imitators; but among their works few can be selected as worthy presentations of childhood in ideal types.

Gainsborough and Romney were considered to some extent the rivals of Reynolds, but Gainsborough’s child pictures were drawn from rustic life, and Romney’s are not worthy of comparison with the master’s. We must turn, then, for the best results of Reynolds’s influence to the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who entered upon his career just as the great portrait-painter was obliged to lay aside his brush from failing sight.

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