I had not intended to cover work of the 18th Century but the art of the period reflected changing attitudes toward children which is relevant today.
The portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) had a dramatic influence on British art. He was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, and was knighted by George III in 1769. Reynolds is known for continuing the style of English portraiture established by Sir Anthony Van Dyke (1599-1641) but his playful images of children were often inspired by French sources.
Reynold’s portrait of the Marlborough Family is consider his most ambitious work, J.W. Waterhouse called it the ‘most monumental achievement of British portraiture’. Art historians tend to focus on the interaction of the Duke with his son on the left side of the painting with little attention to the group of children to the right of the painting. Although the contrast between “adult formality and childish playfulness” has been noted of the figures of the opposite sides of the painting, I have found nothing accounting for the symbolism of the girl holding the mask.
Before the 18th Century social attitudes were different toward children, there was no separate culture for children, they shared the same games and fairy stories with adults. The view of children changed as a result of social need, with the industrial revolution the Western world became more complex, demanding more skilled and trained men for professions. In this period, the idea of children’s innocence appeared which should not be confused with the innocence of the garden of Eden, I think the 18th Century view of children’s innocence is comparable to the idea of the “noble savage”. Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) accounted for the effects of alienation from industrialization long before Karl Marx, he wrote “Our childhood is all that remains of nature in humanity, such as civilization has made it, of untouched, unmutilated nature. It is, therefore, not wonderful, when we meet out of us the impress of nature, that we are always brought back to the idea of our childhood.”
I belive the grotesque mask the girl holds which frightens the youngest girl symbolizes the mask one is expected to wear in adulthood.
Because the roles of adulthood were increasingly artificial, childhood came to be sentimentalized. There weren’t many cute paintings before the 18th century but by the 19th Century it was a genre by its self. It seems the French artist Carle Van Loo (1705-1765) was the first to paint children playing adult roles. Loo’s Allegory of Painting shows a little muse of painting inspiring a young artist. The boy has finished painting the head and shoulders on the canvas which is quite an impressive rendering for such a young artist!
Reynold’s The Infant Academy is obviously a paraphrase of Loo’s painting, but Reynold’s young artist rather than representing the little girl as the muse of painting instead paints her portrait as a lady wearing a fashionable hat. Robert Rosenblum observed,”The witty mixture of high seriousness (the classical architecture and statue fragment; the study of the nude) and the ture-life facts the learned artist confronted with the perpetual demand for high-style portraiture, is virtually a comment, couched in French rococo language, on the amusing disparity between the lofty intentions of the Royal Academy and the realities of British patronage and practice.”