CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Age of innocence: portraying children in the European tradition

Exhibition: 15 December 2006 - 17 June 2007

Placing the child in the center, the current infant-centric approach, which puts time and effort into granting children an equal social position, sometimes even higher than the one held by adults, was not a norm of society during earlier times in history. The scholar Phillip Aries claimed that only since the 17th century was childhood first regarded as a legitimate phase of life with its own special needs. Obviously it took time, social revolutions and the initial development of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century, to stop addressing childhood as a necessary default – a mere stage in the child’s development toward the more wholesome stage of adulthood.

The early works exhibited in this show are from the 16th century while the later ones are from the last decade; the visitor can review them and reflect upon the changes in attitude towards children in art. Almost till the end of the 19th century only children of the upper classes had their portraits ordered by their parents. The young prince or the rich burger’s son was a child born and destined to do great things and accordingly they were presented in their best attire as befitting their social status.

At times they were portrayed holding a book in their hands, hinting that education was part of their privileges. Children born into the lower castes of society were usually presented in genre scenes; in these works they are always a part of the adults world – they sell products in the market, carry heavy burdens and even take part in acts of felony. In all these works the major difference between a child and an adult is the size of their bodies and their facial features. Innocence and the obvious need for protection and compassion are missing from the composition.

By the end of the 19th century middle-class children are presented with books in their hands, hinting that their status has somewhat improved due to the new recognition in the importance of general education.
Genre paintings feature new scenes in which daily episodes from a child’s life such being in the kindergarten, the Jewish heder, or the drawing class takes place.

During the 20th century works of art in which the child is central, and is regarded as a worthy, independent little person, identified by his own name even if he is not of royal birth, are no longer a rare phenomenon.

Images of young girls usually depicted as little women with their dolls, have an important place in the exhibition. They are less frequent seen with books, and these are usually prayer books and missals. The exhibition includes rare depictions of black children in the nude and close to Nature, and even one painting of Jewish children with their rebbe-tutor.