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Published 17/12/2007 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Age of Transparency and Innocence: the Changing Face of Childhood

The Changing Face of Childhood: British Children's Portraits and their Influence in Europe
Städel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany and Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
Germany: DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 2007

The excellent exhibition 'The Changing Face of Childhood', the product of a collaboration between the Stadel Museum and Dulwich Picture Gallery, closed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London on 2 November 2007. This production now forms a lasting record of the reappraisal of a genre of portrait painting that by no means originated in the 18th century - the focus of this exhibition - but whose precedent runs back to the Renaissance period and forward into the many ramifications of portraiture in the 21st century.

Today, the borderlines of childhood have moved back so significantly, not only through commercial pressures, but also due to the manipulations of cyberspace. Photography has of course been the principal medium for this process, while adulthood has inevitably, due to media pressures, reverted to commencement at the start of the teenage years. The exhibition organisers wisely place the 18th century as the generator of their own inspired appraisal, conscious always of the consequent advancement of the Age of Enlightenment, with Romanticism waiting in attendance.

Max Hollein, Director of the Städel, and Ian Dejardin of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, have in their joint foreword given due recognition to the initial inspiration of the famous portrait by Thomas Lawrence of the Cavendish children, a work which seems to have precipitated early the swell of children's portraiture. The numerous works in the exhibition itself were accordingly connected at the source with this emblematic and definitive work. The idea of childhood itself advanced accordingly to centre stage in the portraiture of the time, both in England and across Europe. This publication has an English language translation, which loses nothing of the original, by Michael Wolfson.

Anthony Van Dyck is rightly credited with the real inception of modern portraiture in England generally, as when appointed to the English Court he soon fostered the development of Baroque portraiture in Britain. Van Dyck, it is believed on good authority, saw Titian's portrait of Clarissa Strozzi in Rome at the age of two. But Van Dyck is also credited with the introduction of landscape as background, an important and significant mise-en-scène for childhood portrayal and indeed of 18th century family life in general. The Enlightenment mood of the times supported the endowment of independence; for the young, an appropriate accompaniment for the expression of an assumed innocence in their faces.

The book itself skilfully plots the transition in portrait treatment from the work of William Hogarth to that of Gainsborough and Reynolds in England. In this age of Rousseau new influences were at large, as personified by the flourish of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire with her daughter Georgiana portrayed in 1784. Here was the beginning of the liberated mother, no less. In this heyday, English portraiture was seen to reflect a socially and progressive national trajectory, an apparent cohesion that was less readily attainable on the Continent, still plagued by uncertainties and the revolutionary mood. Monarchies abroad sought to reflect this progressive trend, where possible, for the appreciation of their subjects. In Germany, Philipp Otto Runge's 'Portrait of the Hulsenbeck children' (1805) is a case in point. In post-revolutionary France, children were still shown in the company of their parents, almost there as 'props'. Andrea Appiani's portrait of his own children (a portraitist who thrived on commissions under Napoleon) offers a distinct informality.

Although not represented in either the exhibition or this book, the work of the Geneva-born Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) should perhaps be mentioned. Liotard was renowned as a portraitist in pastel throughout the courts of Europe. As early as 1753-1755, while in London, he had portrayed the children of the Prince of Wales. Notable in his 2002 retrospective in Geneva and last year at the Frick Collection in Washington DC, were his child pastels of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and Maximilian Franz of Austria, both executed as early as 1762, as well as his portrait of the two-year-old Frederika of Orange Nassau. The last especially captures that quality of the 'transparency of innocence' that this exhibition seeks to express above all else for the 21st-century public. In her chapter of that title in the book, Iris Wien defines this vital characteristic as it emerged in 18th century English child portraiture. She proposes, that it was the influence of the English theorist John Locke, in his famous treatise 'Some Thoughts Concerning Education' (1693) that went to underline widespread assumptions about childhood earlier prevalent in England, and she contrasts this rigorous but logical thesis with the somewhat sentimental pedagogy on the matter of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 'Emile, ou l'Education' (English translation 1762), a much later influence on the continent. Here Wien significantly explains how Locke emphasised that education itself was a social, and not a spiritual process, its role being the goal of educating virtuous and useful individuals to understand their rank and role in modern society.

Fortunately, it was Locke who had a profound and lasting influence in Britain from the 18th century onwards. This standpoint is further expanded upon by Jurgen Overhoff  and Hanno Schmidt in a further chapter in the book, focusing on 'John Locke and European Philanthropism', which discusses new pedagogical models as  based on English examples during the Age of Enlightenment. Locke's text had appeared subsequently in a German translation published in Leipzig in 1708. Locke himself was careful to differentiate between girls' needs and boys' needs, albeit in a progressive mode.

In a further chapter, 'Setting: A Landscape Garden? Arcadia and Utopia in the Background', Adrian von Buttlar provides a resume of the uses for which landscape background, was deployed by the portraitist of children and families. The so-called 'Garden Revolution' of the 18th century made use of gardens, parks and manorial landscapes to emphasise status. Fortunately, this created no conflict with the aspirations of contemporary poets, writers and philosophers. Von Buttlar has developed an interesting argument where the posing of adults is concerned but in the context of the book's focussing on childhood portraiture, he provides no actual examples. It is left to the reader to apply the underlying message to childhood portraits him or herself. Fortunately, examples abound within the genre, as in the catalogue, in the works of Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman, Thomas Gainsborough, Henry Raeburn, Louis-Leopold Boilly, William Beechey, Jens Juel and many others.

This is a superb survey, and all the more useful in the British context as the evident scholarship emerges from European rather than British sources and authors. All who have contributed to this exceptional publication are to be congratulated.

Michael Spens 



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