Painted Children Painted Children

Painted Children

Childhood in Art History
Anna Arno
time 10 minutes

It took some time for children to appear on artists’ canvases, and the earliest depictions may seem rather inept. Often, their portrayals show them entangled in the political and societal relations of their day, and are far from an obvious source of pleasure. More often than not, their immortalized images served political purposes rather than evoking tenderness and affection.

Felipe Próspero has an intelligent gaze and still babyish charm. In Diego Velázquez’s painting, the two-year-old prince is wearing a long dress with an apron – this sort of outfit was worn by girls and boys between the 16th and 18th centuries. Unfortunately, the precious amulets decorating his clothes did nothing to help him – suffering from anaemia and epilepsy, Felipe didn’t live to see his fourth birthday. That he seems full of life is thanks to Velázquez, whose artistry infused such feeling into a ceremonial portrait. It’s worth comparing this painting with one that is in many ways similar, but a few decades older – the childhood portrait of Louis XIV. The young king has a chubby face but is already wearing ermine and standing in a majestic pose. These are not affectionate little portraits, but rather emblems of the stability of the dynasty. 300 years ago, children were not painted to preserve their charm.

The holy child

To tell the truth, for centuries the only child to feature in European art was Jesus. In mediaeval icons, he is the puer senex – ‘the old boy’, with marked furrows on his brow and hands raised in a gesture typical of an orator. This representation was by no means down to ancient artists’ ineptitude: icon painters weren’t interested in realism but in the theological message. Instead of fawning over the little tot, the faithful were supposed to muse on the dual nature of Christ, who was both divine and human. According to the conclusions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE,


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