Child-life in Art



O for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place,
Flight of fowl, and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;—

For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,—
Blessings on the barefoot boy!



The most fortunate children in the world are those whose first lessons in life have been learned on the lap of Mother Nature. Taught by her to know and love all the beautiful things of the glad green earth; versed in the mystic language of woodland birds and beasts; trained to the skilful use of eye and muscle,—they possess the secret of a happiness which knows no equal. Theirs is a life of perfect liberty, untrammelled by the false conventions of society, uninjured by over-indulgence, untainted by contact with vice. Growing up under these conditions into a healthy and vigorous beauty, the children of field and village have long been a source of delight and inspiration to both poet and painter.

In genre painting, Holland gave the initiative to the art world in the works of Jan Steen, the Teniers, and others. The influence of the Dutch school at length made itself felt in England; and after the renaissance of British art, in the middle of the eighteenth century, many painters arose to interpret the conditions of rustic life peculiar to England.

First on this list stands the name of Thomas Gainsborough.[7] From early boyhood he loved nature with all the intensity of a true artist’s soul, and many picturesque scenes in the vicinity of his native Sudbury were indelibly impressed upon his youthful mind. Later in life, when at the height of his success as a great London painter, his favorite summer resort was Richmond, where, wandering about the country from day to day, he met many an interesting village child whose face was transferred to his canvas. Fortunate little models, these; for the artist always rewarded them for their sittings with lavish generosity.

rustic children.—gainsborough.

One particular boy, Jack Hill by name, so charmed Gainsborough that he actually adopted the lad, and immortalized his handsome features in two paintings.[8] Jack Hill did not live up to his privileges, and, preferring his old free life to the restrictions of a more elegant household, he ran away. He was, however, never forgotten; and after Gainsborough died, his good widow provided amply for the youth’s welfare.

Perhaps the most extensively known of all Gainsborough’s delineations of country child-life is the Rustic Children of the National Gallery. The central figure is a young girl, standing, with a child in her arms; a boy sits on the bank beside her with a bundle of fagots. The group is artistically conceived, with one of Gainsborough’s characteristic landscapes as a background, showing a cottage home. The children are graceful and natural, with that indefinable poetic charm peculiar to the painter’s work.

A picture attracting a great deal of admiration in the lifetime of Gainsborough, was the Boy at the Stile. While this treasure was still in the hands of the artist, he was visited one day by Colonel Hamilton, then considered the finest violinist of his times. Gainsborough, a devoted lover of music, begged him to play, and when the first air was finished, rapturously exclaimed, “Now, my dear Colonel, if you will but go on, I will give you that picture of the Boy at the Stile, which you so wished to purchase of me.”

In half an hour the prize was won, and both parties were well satisfied with the agreement.

In studying Gainsborough’s rustic children as a class, it is noticeable that he emphasizes the pathetic side of their life; instead of a thrifty, tidy appearance, in which England’s village children are by no means lacking, he gives his subjects a careless, neglected air. The Rustic Children of the National Gallery are unnecessarily ragged; their hair is wild and dishevelled, and their general appearance untidy. Many of the children of the most celebrated pictures are attractive from a delicate, refined beauty, rather than from the robust and healthy vitality we naturally associate with country life. This makes their surroundings incongruous, and we feel sorry that they are not in their true sphere. The child who stands, half-clad, before the hearth-fire, in the painting called the “Little Cottager,” has the delicate features of a true aristocrat. No cottage boy this, with shapely hands and large, melancholy eyes. His wistfulness is so touching that we would fain snatch him from his surroundings, and set him down amidst the soft luxuries which belong to him by right.

The Shepherd Boy in a Storm has the face and expression of a poet, as he lifts his beautiful eyes to the overhanging clouds, with nothing of fear or shrinking, but with apparent admiration for the grandeur of Nature.

Gainsborough painted many scenes of child-life in which animals are introduced, as in the picture of a girl holding a child on a donkey, and in one representing two shepherd boys looking on at fighting dogs. He did not hesitate before a subject which would have appalled most artists, and which, in other hands, would have been vulgar and common,—A Girl Feeding Pigs. This he painted with such skill that Reynolds instantly recognized its greatness, and eagerly purchased it for a sum far in advance of the price modestly named by the painter. The amusing anecdote is related concerning this work that a countryman, who studied it attentively some time, gave it as his opinion that “they be deadly like pigs; but nobody ever saw pigs feeding together but what one on ’em had a foot in the trough.”

Gainsborough[9] is pronounced by Ruskin the purest colorist of the English school, taking rank beside Rubens, and adding a lustre to the fame of British art which time can do nothing to dim. His style is so peculiarly individual in its characteristics that it cannot properly be compared with that of any other artist; but his predilection for subjects drawn from rural child-life finds a parallel in the work of his French contemporary, Jean Baptiste Greuze.[10]

The pictures by which Greuze made his early reputation, and which perhaps he never excelled in later times, were the Father Explaining the Bible to his Children,[11] and the Village Bride.[12] Both represent family scenes among village people, and contain, as their most charming features, some delightfully natural children. One could scarcely find anything more deliciously childlike than the mischievous little ones who gather about the table to listen to the Father Explaining the Bible, and whose love of fun even this solemn occasion cannot repress. Equally attractive are the young people gathering affectionately and tearfully about their pretty elder sister, the Village Bride, who comes with her lover to receive the parental blessing.

The appearance of these two compositions made their artist famous, and won for him the ardent admiration and powerful friendship of the encyclopædist Diderot. Continuing his work along this new[13] line of subjects, Greuze went on to paint many other scenes in the child-life of the country. Two notable companion pictures of this kind are the Departure of the Cradle, and the Return from the Nurse, founded upon a phase of French village life quite unknown in many other countries, namely, the custom among busy working-people of sending their infants out to board with nurses. Unnatural as was the custom, it by no means indicated a lack of family affection, as is seen in these charming compositions. In both cases, the child, at first an infant, and later a little boy a year or two old, is the centre of the group, fondled and admired by all.

The pre-eminence of Greuze was due not only to the entire novelty of his chosen range of subjects, but to the exquisite beauty of his technique. He excelled in painting those fresh carnations, “mixed with lilies and roses,” as the French used to say, and diversified with blue-gray shadows and warm reflected light. Such characteristics are easily carried to extremes, and were often exaggerated by Greuze himself; but when held in true control they are a delight to the eye of the true color-lover.

An example of his coloring, in its most lovely aspects, is the Trumpet. The scene is a cottage interior, in which a young mother, with a babe in her arms, sits beside a cradle containing another little one, and turns to quiet her roguish boy, who stands somewhat sulkily by her chair, reluctant to forego the pleasure of blowing on his trumpet. “Silence! do not awaken him!” is what the mother seems to say; and these words form the title under which the picture first appeared.

Greuze could not altogether escape the blight of that artificiality which was everywhere characteristic of his times, and nowhere more conspicuous than in France. “Soyez piquant, si vous ne pouvez pas être vrai,” was his advice to a fellow artist, Ducreux; and his own work too often shows evidence of the sacrifice of truth to piquancy. His single figures and heads are not, as a class, so true to nature as his compositions, although they are much better known to the public. Scattered far and wide through all the great art galleries of the world, they have been greatly admired for their delicate coloring, and for those qualities of prettiness which are always attractive.

Nearly all these purport to be representations of children, but they are certainly not like the children of our own households, nor, indeed, like those of the same artist’s domestic pictures. They reverse the proverb, by being young heads on old shoulders, the face and features of childhood on the mature and well-developed figure of womanhood. The expression, too, is a curious combination of childlike simplicity with the sentimental melancholy of young maidenhood; and one cannot escape the impression that the models are not genuine peasant children, but pretty and somewhat worldly young women, masquerading in pastoral costumes for a fancy ball.

From the long list of examples of this class, both figures and heads, a few well-known subjects will suggest the type: The Milkmaid, the Little Pouter, Simplicity, the Girl with an Orange, and the Broken Pitcher.

the broken pitcher.—greuze.

The last is probably more familiar than any other work of Greuze. It attained an immense popularity in the lifetime of the artist, attracting many people to his studio. Among the visitors was Mademoiselle Philipon, afterwards known to fame as Madame Roland, and her delightful description[14] gives a complete idea of the picture:—

“It is a little girl, naïve, fresh, charming, who has just broken her pitcher; she holds it on her arm, near the fountain where the accident occurred. Her eyes are downcast, her lips half parted; she tries to account for her mishap, and does not know if she is in fault. Nothing could be more piquant and charming. The only criticism one could suggest is that Monseiur Greuze has not made the little maid sorry enough, so that in the future she will not be tempted to return to the fountain!”

The heroine of the broken pitcher is dressed in white, has blue eyes and auburn hair, cherry lips, and pink-and-white complexion.

For twenty-five years Greuze was the fashion in Paris. With all his faults, he was immeasurably superior to his French contemporaries, and his work was a decided step towards a new era. With the great political and social changes inaugurated in France early in the nineteenth century, an entirely new style of art, literary and graphic, was made possible, and a new school of painters arose to portray French peasant life.

No modern artist has chosen a field which exactly corresponds to that of Greuze, the tendency being rather to neglect the child element to which he devoted so much energy. One painter may be mentioned, however, who has contributed a few valuable additions to this department of art,—William Adolphe Bouguereau.

The remarkable number of works which Bouguereau has produced since his first great success in 1854 have made him distinguished for a large variety of subjects; but the pictures by which he has touched the hearts of the people are those in which he portrays the peasants of his own sunny land,—sweet, shy, dark-eyed girls, with masses of black hair pushed back loosely from their foreheads.

One is a Little Shepherdess, who stands with careless grace poising a crook across her shoulders, while her eyes meet ours with a frank yet modest gaze. Again the same girl rests from her labors, sitting on a stone, lost in revery. Another sweet child is the girl seated by a well, with a broken pitcher lying on the ground beside her. Her hands are clasped on her knee, as she bends slightly forward in a pensive attitude, her large eyes full of childish pathos. Cajolery also belongs to this set, and is so named from the caresses with which a little girl begs some favor of an older sister, whose merry eyes show that she fully understands the secrets of child diplomacy.

Younger than any of these children is the bewitching little gypsy, whose tangled curls frame a round, dimpled face, with rosebud mouth, and big black eyes looking bashfully askance. There is a peculiar charm in the child’s shyness, as if, like some wild creature of the woods, she would turn and flee before a nearer approach.

Bouguereau’s work, academic in style, and always refined and elegant in manner, has qualities of artistic excellence which place him in the foremost rank; and we are glad to believe that for many generations to come his lovely little peasant girls will be widely known and loved.

child head.—bouguereau.

From the dark-eyed children of sunny France to the fair-haired sons and daughters of the Saxon race is a long step, which introduces us to child-life of a totally different type. Childhood in the rural districts of Germany and Switzerland has been very completely portrayed by Johann Georg Meyer, better known as Meyer von Bremen,—the name he has taken in honor of his native city.

With an intense sympathy for all the pleasures of childhood, Meyer unites a wonderfully delicate sense of the artistic and picturesque. His fertility of invention seems well-nigh inexhaustible. He has given us cottage scenes and out-of-door life with impartial liberality, and has shown equal skill of treatment, whether he handles groups or single figures.

His subjects are drawn largely from life in the Hessian, Bavarian, and Swiss Alps, where he has carefully studied the manners and customs of the people. The cottage interiors have all the characteristic quaintness and charm of these peasant homes. High wooden chairs, of the “fiddle-back” pattern, are the conspicuous pieces of furniture; rich old cabinets stand against the walls, and oddly shaped earthern jars are ranged on shelves. The light comes through little diamond-paned windows, and gleams on floors of hard wood, unadorned with carpet or rug. In these surroundings, groups of flaxen-haired children sport in all the sweet innocence of healthy, happy childhood. Sometimes they gather eagerly about the table to play with their Pet Canary; at another time they cluster about their mother’s knee to peep admiringly at the wonderful new baby in her arms, and to hear the mysterious announcement that The Storks Brought It. Again, the centre of their attention is the tiny brother gleefully taking his first uncertain steps towards the outstretched arms of his young mother.

the little rabbit-seller.—meyer von bremen.

The out-of-door scenes have the picturesque mountain scenery of the Alps for their background, and sometimes a pretty cottage is included in the scene. A characteristic example is the Little Rabbit-Seller. A group of children gather round a little girl, who carries, suspended from her shoulders, a large basket of rabbits. Two of the number peep with intense interest into the basket, delighted with the opportunity to feed the pretty creatures. The others are talking with the young merchant,—a school-boy with book satchel held behind him, and an older girl holding a curly-haired child on her back. The pure, gentle face of the young girl is one not to be easily forgotten, and which reappears on other canvases of the artist. The affectionate care of this older sister for the child she carries is one of many instances in which the same trait is shown in Meyer’s pictures, and is eminently characteristic of the Germans.

The earnest piety in which the children of these simple-hearted people are reared is beautifully expressed in the companion pictures, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, as well as in one called Simple Devotion, where a little girl offers a bouquet to the Virgin of a wayside shrine.

In whatever mood the children are portrayed, they are always entirely unconscious of observers, never posing for the artist, but caught unawares on his canvas, in the midst of their pursuits. In this way they always make pictures with “stories” in them, of just the kind to delight the heart of a child.

Such art carries a beautiful and enduring lesson, whether the scenes it represents are German or French, English or American. In these visions of the simple and joyous life of the country, we are brought, as it were, face to face with Nature, to enjoy her sweetest and most beneficent influence.

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