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Paintings Of Children

By Whitney Allen

( Orginally published April 1945 )



Some pictures walk into our hearts before we know we have opened the door to let them in. Whenever that happens the picture usually has come to stay. It has caught our affections. I know an old bachelor, an art connoisseur, who once went to a museum to examine the technique of a famous painting and came away with a portrait of a little girl aglow in his memory. It delighted him the rest of his life.

Beautiful pictures of children are like that. They seem to have a universal appeal. They charm not only mothers and fathers but critical spinsters and gruff old codgers. No wonder the most popular exhibition in New York last month was the loan-show of children's portraits at the Wildenstein Galleries. Put on by the Public Education Association (originators of the Parent-Teachers Association), it gathered together 76 paintings, at least a dozen of which touched the affections. Furthermore, since the dates of the paintings ranged from 1600 down to present times, it offered the public a pictorial history of children since the 17th century.

The 17th century is an appropriate date for such an exhibition to begin. Before that time, artists generally painted children as if they were small-sized adults; their dear little faces soberly set, their postures stiff and proper, their air altogether dignified, sometimes even self-possessed. Perhaps the reason for so much formality is that throughout the long evolution of painting from the 13th to the 17th century, painters were primarily busy with religious art and, as Alice Maynell once explained it, "dealt less with children than with one Child," whose Divinity they were trying to suggest. There were happy exceptions-for example, Botticelli, Raphael, Bellini and Bronzino-but in general the early Old Masters portray a child that seems unchildlike.

What are the pictures we think of first, when we think of pictures of children? The painting of Baby Stuart, by Van Dyck; the Age of Innocence, by Joshua Reynolds; the Blue Boy, by Gainsborough; or one of Rembrandt's portraits of his only child and son, Titus. All of them were painted in the 17th or 18th century. It is not until then that the child in art really becomes a child. How human, how natural, how individual they become thereafter, the paintings in the exhibition made wonderfully clear!

Of the treasures on view the earliest was a halfbright, half-shadowy bust of a boy, by Caravaggio, and a portrait by Rubens, as clear as drawing, of his lovely, blue-eyed, fair-haired daughter, Clara Serena. Then came a rollicking little barbarian by Frans Hals, The Fisher Girl, a happy-go-lucky creature who hadn't washed her face or combed her hair but whose smile was broad and expressive of the joy of life.

Early Spanish art was represented by a careful, quite naturalistic study of the heads of two boys, not yet in their teens, their eyes cast downward, their thoughts absorbed in something cut off by the picture, perhaps a toy they were making. French art of the 18th century was shown in several examples, among them a fine young fellow by the Frenchman who made a specialty of depicting children because he loved them so much, Chardin, and, from the brush of the gracious painter, Drouais, a little girl aristocrat in frills and furbelows, her wave-curled hair pompadoured in the fashion of the period.

Of course the half-dozen most famous British portraitists-Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Raeburn, Hoppner and Lawrence--were represented very handsomely. Yet since the Blue Boy could not be borrowed from California and the Age of Innocence is in a bomb-proof shelter, "somewhere in England," the picture which outranked everything else in this section was Lawrence's Calmady Children (here reproduced). Of all his paintings it is the one he himself believed to be his masterpiece, and history has proved him right. He worked for weeks on the picture, holding the two children in his studio for hours on end and keeping them happy and fresh for the moments of painting by lunching them, reading stories to them and romping with them all over the house. The playful mood of childhood has never been caught in paint with more genuine liveliness and sparkle than this.

Another extraordinary jewel in the show was Goya's courtly yet straightforwardly simple portrayal, the Count of Trastamara, at the age of five or six-a little patrician of the first order yet at the same time from top to toe already a sturdy little man. This picture would be Goya's masterpiece of childhood but that as the father of 25 children of his own he became one of the best painters of children the world has ever known and succeeded in two or three other canvases as remarkably well as this one.

Several of the most attractive, most humanly natural portraits were of infants and small children by nineteenth century Frenchmen. Unfortunately, there is not space enough in which to describe them but one must mention the baby by Renoir, an adorable infant in long clothes, just old enough to sit up by herself, her head already shapely and her healthy pink complexion as pure in color and texture as shell-pink flowers. No one ever has excelled Renoir in the painting of a baby's skin. The modern French school was also included, with pictures by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, and various others. It gave quite a modern atmosphere to the exhibition.

As with the other sections, the American paintings dated from the 17th century to present times. This section began with portraits by the naive; halfawkward but talented Colonial painters sometimes called "American primitives." It continued down through enchanting children by Copley, Whistler, Mary Cassatt (reproduced), Sargent (reproduced) and Bellows to gifted artists such as Eugene Speicher, Franklin Watkins and Alexander Brook, who are very much alive today.

Child With Kitten By Raeburn