Childhood: A Visual Story

“Children should be seen and not heard,” says a 15th-century English proverb. That is certainly the case in a series of paintings featured on Google Arts & Culture. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna, which displays the modern art collection of Milan, Italy, teamed up with Google to produce an online exhibition of artworks depicting children in the 19th and 20th century. Titled simply Childhood, the exhibition explores a range of artists and styles that have one thing in common: the presence of a child.

It is interesting to see the different approaches to depicting a child. Some artists focused on the innocence of children, whereas others produced a maternal scene, emphasising the importance of motherhood. Many of the artworks in the exhibition were commissioned by proud parents who wished to capture the purity of their child before they grew up; it is much easier for parents to do this today with the development of the digital camera. Other artworks, however, contain a message or tell a story in which the child plays a vital role.

Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child – Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

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Portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini as a Child (Oil on Canvas), by Francesco Hayez (1858)

This portrait of Countess Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini is an example of a painting requested by a parent. Her father, Count Alessandro Negroni Prati Morosini, commissioned the Italian painter Francesco Hayez to produce a series of portraits of his extended family, including one of his four-year-old daughter.

Rather than just painting the child, Hayez brought the plain background to life with a still-life of a magnificent display of colourful flowers. To connect the two genres of painting together, Antonietta was posed with a bouquet of the same flowers.

Usually, commissioned portraits were intended to express the wealth and status of the sitter. Costumes, hairstyles and facial expressions were carefully considered, as was likely done in this case with Antonietta’s dress. Unfortunately, the clothing was a little on the large side, causing the sleeves to slip down and expose much of her chest. Hayez could have used his skill and artistic license to change the position of the sleeves, however, he opted for a realistic likeness.

Photography had already been invented at the time of this portrait, although not widely used and only in black and white, and several were taken of Antonietta to limit the amount of time she had to pose. Once again, Hayez could have chosen the happiest or sweetest facial expression but opted for the most realistic instead. As a result, Antonietta looks slightly awkward and confused, as any 4-year-old would when forced to pose for a portrait.

The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1858-99)

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The Two Mothers – Giovanni Segantini (1889)

The Two Mothers by Giovanni Segantini explores the relationship between mother and child. The Italian Symbolist artist, whose mother died when he was seven after a long illness, painted this genre scene for the inaugural Milan Triennale in 1891. The child, who is only a baby, lies asleep on its mother’s lap. Sitting on a stool, the mother has also drifted to sleep, suggesting it took some time to settle the child.

As the title suggests, there are two mothers in the painting, the other being a cow who stands over her sleeping calf. Both woman and cow are symbols of motherhood. Segantini has not represented motherhood as a glamourous role, as some portrait artists might, but rather as a humble, selfless task. The humbleness is emphasised by the lowly barn, dimly lit by a lantern. It is likely the same place the calf was born, therefore, the scene also represents the beginnings of life.

Segantini’s biography claims his paintings represent his pantheistic view of life. He did not recognise God as an individual entity but rather recognised divinity within all natural things. “I’ve got God inside me. I don’t need to go to church.” Farms and barns were a common feature of the landscape in the Alps where Segantini lived, however, someone unfamiliar with the area may derive a different meaning from the painting. Although it was not intended to have religious connections, a Christian may recognise Christ’s humble beginnings in the artwork.

Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life – Giovanni Segantini

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Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life- Giovanni Segantini (1894)

Segantini was not a church-going man, which makes Christian Goddess a strange title for one of his paintings. This canvas, however, was a commission from the Italian banker Leopoldo Albini to be hung in his extravagant home. The figures are supposed to represent the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus sitting in a barren tree. Some have interpreted this as being symbolic of both Jesus’ birth and death, the branches representing the crown of thorns.

On the other hand, the branches may relate more to the mother than the child. The Virgin Mary has on occasion been nicknamed the “rose without thorns”, suggesting she has lived a sin-free life. The analogy developed from the idea that roses did not have thorns before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Despite the painting’s depiction of the relationship between mother and child, the figures were actually modelled on the artist’s nanny, Baba, and Segantini’s son, Gottardo. With this in mind, Christian Goddess, sometimes known as the Angel of Life, demonstrates the maternal instincts of women towards babies and young children regardless of their relationship.

Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1852-1920)

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Madonna of the Lilies – Gaetano Previati (1893-94)

Gaetano Previati was an Italian symbolist and contemporary of Segantini who also painted a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Unlike Segantini, Previati painted many artworks on a religious theme, particularly involving Catholic ideals.

Madonna of the Lilies, which originally had the shorter title Madonna, shows Mary in a seated position with the baby on her lap. This religious iconography has been around since the 15th century, although the Virgin is usually shown seated on a throne. Whilst Previati was influenced by tradition, he used the Divisionist style inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Divisionism involved separating colours into dots or dashes, although slightly subtler than Pointillism.

The title Madonna of the Lilies has been used by other artists working on a similar theme. Although Previati’s painting contains the theme of motherhood, it’s Catholic connection is a stronger subject. Just as a thornless rose is used to describe the Virgin’s sinless lifestyle, lilies represent chastity and purity.

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish (Ring a Ring o’ Roses) – Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907)

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish is a copy of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s original painting Idillio primaverile (Spring Idyll) that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1903. It is not certain why Pellizza chose to make a copy, however, it was left incomplete at his death in 1907. It was eventually finished by Italian Impressionist Angelo Barabino (1883-1950).

It is thought Pellizza was inspired by The Dance of the Cupids by Italian Baroque artist Francesco Albani (1578-1660), which depicts several naked cherubs dancing around a tree. In contrast, Pellizza’s children are fully clothed and playing Ring a Ring o’ Roses in a field beyond a blossoming tree rather than around it. Pellizza also included a couple of children playing together in the foreground.

The setting is based on the commune Volpedo in the Piedmont region of Italy where Pellizza lived for his entire life – hence the new title of the painting. The original painting belonged to a series representing the theme of love. On its own, however, the painting is a metaphor for life. The trees are blossoming after the winter, demonstrating the cycle of the seasons. The children also represent new life; people grow old and die but new generations keep on coming.

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1843-89)

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog

The Troubetzkoy Children And Their Dog – Daniele Ranzoni (1874)

As can be guessed by the title, this painting was a commission by Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy (1866-1938), a Russian diplomat and sculptor who the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) claimed was “the most astonishing sculptor of modern times.” The three boys, Pietro, Paolo, and Luigi, are shown with their dog in the family’s greenhouse at their villa on Lake Maggiore.

Despite being the portraits of children from a noble family, Daniele Ranzoni adopted an informal approach, which emphasised the children’s youth and energy. Ranzoni belonged to the Scapigliatura (Bohemian) movement and built up his paintings with splashes of colour, disregarding form and depth.

The painting was presented at the Brera exhibition in 1874 and is considered to be one of Ranzoni’s most successful works. Whether Troubetzkoy was pleased with this representation of his children is a different matter. The facial features are a blur, making the result a far cry from the realistic family portraits desired by the upper classes.

Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1871-1958)

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Girl Running on a Balcony – Giacomo Balla (1912)

Giacomo Balla’s painting of his eldest daughter Luce running on a balcony can be interpreted as a unique depiction of childhood freedom. The Futuristic style, which borrows elements from Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Divisionism, Pointillism and Cubism, shows each movement Luce made as she ran from one side of the balcony to the other. The repetition of his daughter’s body also emphasises the speed in which she ran. This reflects what the Futurists believed, that everything is made up of dynamic forces and, therefore, everything is in constant motion.

The mosaic effect blurs the features of Luce’s face, making her the anonymous “Girl” running on a balcony. It was not Balla’s aim to capture his daughter or memory but rather study the movement of a child. The painting was also not intended to represent childhood, however, the artist’s meaning and the viewers’ interpretations can differ.

Some of the paintings included in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s Childhood exhibition have little or no explanation. This may be due to the artists being lesser-known or the true purpose of the paintings being lost. One example is Bambini e Fiori by Italian painter Armando Spadini (1883-1925). The title translates into English as “Children and Flowers”, which is an obvious description of the painting. An alternative title offers the names of the children as Anna and Lillo, however, nothing else is known of their identity.

Spadini was a Symbolist painter who moved to Rome from Florence in 1910 to focus on a career as a portrait and landscape artist. Despite being virtually unknown today, Spadini grew successful through his participation with annual exhibitions and, in 1924, had an entire room devoted to his work at the 14th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia.

The way Anna and Lillo are sat suggests they are posing for the painting, therefore, it could either have been a commission or a double portrait of Spadini’s own children. Rather than glamorising the children, Spadini captured the bored expression of the older child and the baby’s distraction with the flowers. Rather than create an unflattering image, it makes a sweet, contemplative picture of two siblings in a moment of quiet and demonstrates the love and tenderness of the older for the younger and the trust the baby has for its sister.

Plinio Nomellini (1866-1943), on the other hand, painted a spontaneous scene that captured the interaction between mother and child. Nomellini, whose work became increasingly Divisionist in style throughout his career, shows a child’s delight at reading, or at least looking at, a book. Rather than the mother reading to her child, the child is attempting it for itself. The mother, whose arm stretches towards the book, is eager to help the child with this latest development, demonstrating her love and care.

The identity of woman and child is unknown and the little information the internet has about Nomellini does not uncover any clues. Nomellini was born in Livorno but studied in Florence where he took part in several exhibitions. His later work got him in trouble with the law and he was arrested and accused of anarchism. Fortunately, he was acquitted and joined a group of Symbolist painters. He spent the latter years of his life between Florence and the Island of Elba. With no knowledge of his family, it is impossible to guess whether his painting is of his wife and child, friends or strangers.

Of course, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna is not the only art gallery with paintings of children. Londoners do not even have to leave the city to view an excellent example of a day in the life of a child. The Guild Hall Gallery, home to beautiful Victorian art, owns two paintings on the theme of childhood by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder, John Everett Millais (1829-96). Millais was very fond of children, particularly his daughter Effie who features in My First Sermon and My Second Sermon. The first was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863 and was warmly received by the Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley (1794-1868).

“Art has, and ever will have, a high and noble mission to fulfil…. we feel ourselves the better and the happier when our hearts are enlarged as we sympathise with the joys and the sorrows of our fellow-men, faithfully delineated on the canvas; when our spirits are touched by the playfulness, the innocence, the purity, and may I not add the piety of childhood.”
– Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury

My First Sermon was painted in a church at Kingston-on-Thames, which had high-backed pews. Effie is seated on one of the pews wearing a hat, muff, red stockings and a red cape, which adds a splash of colour to her dreary surroundings. Effie was born in 1858, which makes her five years old in this painting, yet she appears to be trying to pay attention to the sermon.

My Second Sermon, however, reveals the sermon may have gone over her head and she has fallen asleep. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, it would not have been surprising if the painting had not been received well by the Archbishop, however, Longely was just as enthusiastic. In a speech, the Archbishop referred to the painting, saying, “I see a little lady there, who, though all unconscious whom she has been addressing, and the homily she has been reading to us during the last three hours, has in truth, by the eloquence of her silent slumber, given us a warning of the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses. Sorry indeed should I be to disturb that sweet and peaceful slumber, but I beg that when she does awake she may be informed who they are who have pointed the moral of her story, have drawn the true inference from the change that has passed over her since she has heard her ‘first sermon’, and have resolved to profit by the lecture she has thus delivered to them.”

Other commentators at the Royal Academy exhibitions noted that Millais painted his daughter “con amore” (with tenderness), emphasising his love for her. The girl’s facial expression openly expresses the purity of her soul and the innocence associated with childhood.

Another artist noted for his paintings of children is Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), whose work was celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery last year (2019). Known as the “Master of Light”, Sorolla’s beach scenes are some of his best paintings and often featured children, whose movements Sorolla captured perfectly. He emphasised their carefree nature and unknowingly captured 19th-century Spanish beach culture, i.e. young boys wore nothing, whilst girls wore light cotton dresses.

Sorolla was a family man and adored his three children, María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). Although his artistic career was important to him, when Sorolla’s eldest daughter contracted tuberculosis, he put his profession to one side so that he could nurse her back to health.

The paintings by Millais and Sorolla demonstrate a paternal love for children, whereas, some of the artworks at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna illustrate maternal love. The love of a parent is an important factor in a child’s life, which some children sadly miss out on. Fortunately, the children in these 19th and early 20th century paintings had, or a least appeared to have had, a loving childhood during which they could maintain their innocence and enjoy a carefree life.

Of course, life is never as perfect as some of these paintings suggest and there will always be childish tantrums, pain and sadness. Yet, when looking back on life, it is these happier times we wish to remember. These artists have captured what many people associate with childhood and there is something more meaningful and personal seeing it in paint rather than the hundreds of photographs taken of children today.

To see more paintings from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Childhood exhibition, click here.

All images are in the public database.

3 thoughts on “Childhood: A Visual Story

  1. Quite delightful, excellent choice of paintings which shows the sensitivity of handling such a topic as children in pictures. A few new artists as well for me to read up. Thank you again Hazel for sharing your considerable talent.

  2. Very enjoyable Hazel – some lovely, charming paintings and artists I hadn’t heard of so it was good to be able to enjoy their work. Thank you once again for this tour of an exhibition I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

  3. Some paintings and painters I had never come across before with comments and observations that make you think. An excellent blog.

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