Child-life in Art



For thrones and peoples are as waifs that swing
And float or fall, in endless ebb and flow;
But who love best have best the grace to know
That Love, by right divine, is deathless King.



The children of a royal family lead a strange and somewhat lonely life. Impressed, almost from infancy, with a sense of their superiority, and recognizing no equals among their companions and playmates, they live apart in princely isolation, preparing for the future honors which await them. But even the grave responsibilities of their rank cannot altogether extinguish the inherent joyousness of youth, and children will be children to the end of time. The stately ceremonies of the court have to yield in turn to innocent amusements, and childhood reasserts its natural right to simple and spontaneous happiness.

The combination of royal dignity with pure childishness is a unique subject for art, and one which few have had the genius to portray. Two great painters are famous in history for their remarkable success in this line of work,—Van Dyck, of Belgium, and Velasquez, of Spain.

In many respects the lives of these two painters ran in parallel lines. They were born in the same year, 1599; and beginning their art studies when still very young, with great opportunities for the development of their talent, both had won an enviable reputation by the time they had reached early manhood. Both held appointments as the court painters of kings who were unusually liberal and appreciative in their patronage,—Van Dyck under Charles I. of England, and Velasquez under Philip IV. of Spain. Both artists drew great inspiration from the Italian masters, whose works they studied in Venice and Rome, particularly the great Titian. Here, however, the comparison may end; for the nature of the subjects which each chose, the influence of their nationality upon their style, and, above all, their own personal individuality as artists, have rendered their work strikingly dissimilar.

Van Dyck was in every sense a man of the world and a courtier; widely travelled, broadly cultured, fond of music, brilliant in conversation, handsome of face, and graceful in bearing, by turns an elegant host and a distinguished guest. Thus all his thoughts, interests, and pleasures were thoroughly identified with the court life, and he was peculiarly fitted for the artistic interpretation of royalty.

The family of Charles I. of England afforded a most attractive field for the exercise of the court painter’s talent, and many and varied are the groups in which they were represented.[2] Some of the most interesting of these are in the collection at Windsor. In one, the king and queen are seen, with their two sons, Prince Charles and Prince James; while another portrays the same boys, with their mother, Henrietta Maria. The latter painting is an exceedingly beautiful work, repaying long study. The boys have that indefinable air of nobility which Van Dyck knew so well how to impart to his subjects, and which none can imitate or explain. Even Prince James, who is an infant in arms, holds his little head erect, like the prince that he is. The artist has shown us, however, that royal dignity is by no means incompatible with the true child nature, and the two young princes are always depicted as genuine children, with frank, winning faces.

head of james, duke of york.—van dyck.

The most popular of Van Dyck’s portraits of the Stuart children is the famous group at Turin, in which the two young princes, Charles and James, stand one on each side of their sister Mary. All three bear themselves with an air of conscious superiority, a gentle and serene dignity born of their faith in the divine right of kings. Prince Charles is dressed in scarlet satin, richly embroidered with silver lace, with a broad lace collar falling over his shoulders. His large round eyes look out towards the spectator with the dreamy expression of one who builds splendid air-castles. The Princess Mary is in white satin, and is a dainty little figure, a second edition of her queen mamma, with ringlets carefully ranged on each side of her pretty forehead, and her exquisite hands holding lightly the lustrous folds of her dress.

The little Prince James is so short that he stands on a platform at the side, to bring his figure into harmonious relation to the group. His dress is blue satin, of stiff, full skirt, which, with the close white cap on his head, makes him a quaint little figure. A chubby, innocent looking baby, he is nevertheless a personage who fully realizes the important place he occupies in the family group, and is determined to fill it with becoming gravity.

Next in popularity to the Turin picture is a group of five children, the original of which is at Windsor, and a replica at Berlin. The painting is dated 1637, fixing the age of Prince Charles as seven. Having now outgrown the frocks of the earlier pictures, he stands in a graceful boyish attitude, wearing satin knickerbockers and waistcoat, and still retaining the beautiful lace collar on his aristocratic shoulders. His eyes have the same dreamy look as in other portraits. On his right are his sisters Mary and Elizabeth, the former demurely complacent as before, the latter timid and dainty. On the left the little Princess Anne frolics with Prince James in simple childish fashion. As a composition, the picture is somewhat stiff and artificial, but the single figures are all rendered with characteristic beauty.

It is sad to place beside Van Dyck’s glowing canvases, the dark pictures in which historians have painted the after-life of these charming children. The dreamy-eyed Prince Charles grows at length into the corrupt and unprincipled King Charles II., whose tyrannies are limited only by his indolence. The sweet, round-faced baby, Prince James, becomes King James II., whose reign is even more inglorious than that of the brother whom he succeeds. The Princess Mary has in the mean time married Prince William II. of Orange, and now, in England’s hour of need, it is her son, William III. of Orange, who is summoned to the aid of his mother’s native land. With his cousin wife Mary, the daughter of the unworthy king, he assumes the head of affairs, and wisely conducts the interests of the people throughout a prosperous reign.

The fact that the Princess Mary’s marriage with William II. of Orange was productive of so great a benefit to England gives special interest to Van Dyck’s painting of the betrothed lovers, which may now be seen at Amsterdam. The princess stands on the left side of the picture, bearing herself with characteristic dignity. Prince William, beside her, holds her left hand lightly in his right, and turns his face to meet our gaze with steadfast, serious eyes. He is a fine, manly figure, in every way the true Prince Charming for his pretty lady-love. Both children have a thoughtful, intelligent look, far beyond their years, as if conscious that England’s destiny turns upon their union.

princess mary and prince of orange.—van dyck.

From Van Dyck’s exquisitely idealized portraits of royal children we turn to the work of Velasquez, to find a faithful reproduction of the totally different type of child-life represented at the court of Spain. Appointed court painter at the age of twenty-four, and retaining this connection until his death, in 1660, the Spanish artist has left to posterity a vivid panorama of the royal life at Madrid during a period of nearly forty years. His delineations are so realistic, his technique is so masterly, his posing of figures so entirely natural, that his pictures seem to place the living reality before us. Often representing the characters he painted as occupied in their customary daily pursuits, his works are a truthful reflection of the life of his times, and are as full of historical interest as of artistic merit.

The court to which the young painter was introduced in 1623 might almost be called A Court of Boys, the king, Philip IV., being but eighteen years of age, and his two brothers, the Cardinal Infant Don Fernando, and the Prince Carlos, seventeen and thirteen respectively. The youthful king was, of course, his first royal patron, and was painted in a magnificent equestrian portrait, which at once established the artist’s fame.

With the birth of the king’s first child, the Prince Balthasar Carlos, in 1629, the court painter’s duties began in earnest; and from that time on he was most assiduous in portraying the royal family.

Prince Balthasar was represented in almost every imaginable position, first as a tiny child in frocks, and later as a young boy in court dress,[3] military costume, or hunting-garb.

In his most attractive portraits he is a gallant young horseman, seated with an easy grace, as if born to the saddle. Two of these are scenes in the riding-school, and are admirable compositions. The most remarkable, however, is that in the Madrid Museum, in which the little prince rides alone on a bright bay. The beautiful pony bounds out of the picture with great spirit and grace, guided by his happy, round-faced rider, whose right hand lifts a bâton, and whose left holds the bridle. The brilliant colors of his riding-costume make the picture exceedingly effective in rich, warm tints,—the green velvet jacket and the red-and-gold scarf,—while the young cavalier’s fluttering streamers and the horse’s sweeping mane and tail give a swift breezy motion to the whole scene.

Next in age to Prince Balthasar came the Princess Maria Theresa, who afterwards became the queen of Louis XIV. of France. Velasquez painted various portraits of this little princess to be sent to the European courts where negotiations for her marriage were under consideration; but, unhappily, the fate of most of these is shrouded in mystery. One interesting painting, however, may be seen in the Royal Gallery at Madrid.[4] The child has a sweet, demure face, which seems very narrow and delicate-looking in its broad frame of elaborately arranged hair. Her bearing is dignified, in spite of her uncomfortable dress. In one hand she carries an immense handkerchief, and in the other a rose, both resting lightly on the outer edge of the huge hemisphere, of which her slender figure forms, as it were, the central axis. Her sad and lonely after-life as a neglected queen, in the gay and dissolute French court, makes the picture singularly pathetic. There is a look of sweet patience in the face, which seems to anticipate the coming years.

princess maria theresa.—velasquez.

By King Philip’s second marriage he brought to the Spanish court as his wife the Princess Mariana of Austria, who was then only fourteen years of age. The young queen was of course frequently portrayed by the court painter, but she did not make a very attractive subject for his skill, with her rather dull eyes and her full lips, and cheeks plentifully bedaubed with rouge.

As there was a difference of but three years in the ages of the child-wife and the Princess Maria Theresa, the two were constant companions; and when the Princess Margaret was christened, the elder sister stood as godmother with great dignity. A pretty story is related that on the way to the chapel for the christening, Maria Theresa let slip from her finger a costly ring, which a poor woman picked up to return to her. “Keep it,” said the little princess, with true royal tact; “God has sent it to you.”

The Princess Margaret became the darling of the court, and her blonde beauty is immortalized in many portraits by Velasquez. The most famous of these is the picture called “Las Meninas,” or The Maids of Honor, in which the young princess is the central figure of a group of devoted attendants. The composition is a veritable masterpiece, representing with perfect naturalness a daily scene in the palace. The princess rules with a sweet, complacent smile, and one can well imagine what an object of admiration her fair hair and blue eyes must have been among the swarthy, dark-eyed Spaniards.

princess margaret.—velasquez.

Another celebrated painting of the same child is in the Louvre at Paris, where it is a centre of attraction for art lovers and copyists, on account of the exquisite delicacy of its technique. It is a half-length portrait, showing a winning face, with wide, earnest eyes, and a demure little mouth. The fair hair is parted at one side, where it is caught back with a ribbon bow,—a style which the princess is said to have retained even after her marriage with the Emperor Leopold.

From an artist’s point of view, the beauty of the Velasquez child portraits is greatly injured by the grotesque fashions of the times. A long stiff corset and an immense oval hoop entirely precluded any possibility of grace in the attitude of the little princesses, while a ridiculously artificial style of dressing the hair completed the absurdity of a costume which was the laughing-stock of Europe.

Van Dyck was in this respect far more fortunate in his surroundings, and the full, lustrous folds of satin in which the English royal children were arrayed, gave him ample scope for an exquisite disposition of light and shade.

Independently of purely artistic principles, we should be sorry to lose from the pictures of either artist that element of interest and fascination which the costumes of an earlier epoch always arouse. The Princess Maria Theresa would be less interesting without her big hoop, and the Princess Mary less dignified without her voluminous satin; Charles would scarcely be the prince that he is, if lacking his broad lace collar, and Prince Balthasar would lose much of his charm, deprived of his red and green bravery. There is, in fact, no detail in any of these pictures which does not throw light upon the phase of life which they portray.

Other great masters besides Van Dyck and Velasquez have been called to the portraiture of royalty,—Titian,[5] Holbein,[6] Rubens,—but for various reasons they painted but few pictures of royal children, and these are by no means notable when compared with their other works.

Van Dyck and Velasquez, therefore, stand out the more prominently for this unique class of court portraits, and so long as their works endure, they will take first rank as a revelation of the peculiar grace and charm of the life of children born to the purple.

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