Drawing and painting children – examples to learn from, and what to avoid!

I get commissions for child portraits more than any other subject. I’m a great believer in learning from the accomplished artists from the past so I like to study my favourite portraits of children and understand the artists’ techniques. Of course there are many excellent contemporary portraits artists one can look at and sites like ‘Pinterest’ are a great place to start. But I think that there are particular lessons to learn from old portraits in terms of their skill and economy, so here are a few of my favourite artists (and a few to avoid!)

The Painter's Daughters with a Cat by Thomas Gainsborough

The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat, Thomas Gainsborough, About 1760-1 © National Portrait Gallery London

This is one of my favourite child portraits, an unfinished painting by Thomas Gainsborough of his two daughters Mary and Margaret who were around ten and eight respectively. We can see the outlines of the pet cat that was to have sat on Margaret’s lap. It’s such a shame this beautiful painting wasn’t finished but it’s still quite enchanting and seems centuries ahead of the child portraiture that preceded it. Gainsborough’s daughters were the subject of several of his paintings including The Painter’s Two Daughters held at the V&A and also The Painter’s Daughters Chasing A Butterfly which is very well-known and justly celebrated. The latter is a radiantly beautiful image of the two sisters at a younger age running through the woods and the quality of light that illuminates their faces is quite lovely. However as a child portrait I prefer this unfinished painting for the relationship between the two girls and the wonderfully specific likenesses, which are lovingly observed without idealism. So many of my favourite child paintings are of the children (or other relatives) of the artist and I think you often get such an unflinchingly honest representation of character in familial paintings – full of love and yet devoid of sentimentality. Another artist to look at is Augustus John – his wonderful portraits of his sons are similarly honest.

What can we learn from Gainsborough? For me it’s the luminosity he achieves with the light on the childrens’ skin. He’s recognised that a child’s skin is so different to an adult’s – softer, clearer and brighter. He’s illuminated it as much as possible in all three paintings mentioned and has shown it’s thinner quality by contrasting their pink cheeks with their visible pale blue veins. It’s really worth seeing them in person if you can to see how he achieves this.

Off to a bad start…

It’s perhaps worth looking at the earliest paintings of children to see just how far Gainsborough had come. The unattractively painted babies of the Renaissance are now so famous that they have a very popular and entertaining blog devoted to them called Ugly Renaissance Babies which is a real treat for those of use who enjoy unintentionally amusing pictures. Of course these early images were not individualized portraits of children but generic images of the Christ Child and at this time there was no concept of childhood as a unique phase, so any baby was simply portrayed as a literally miniaturized adult.

Madonna and Child by Giovanni di Paolo

Madonna and Child alterpiece, Giovanni di Paolo, 1454 © Met Museum NY, The Friedsam Collection

Things had improved little by the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Although portraiture had now become a unique genre, a portrait did not aim to reveal the inner soul of it’s subject, except perhaps in terms of their religious piety. Largely they were advertisements for the sitter’s wealth, status and above all for their dynastic success so their children were included simply to demonstrate this last quality. With the flat style of painting and the children dressed stiffly as little adults there was no room for  observation of the type of physical characteristics and gestures that make children unique. Indeed siblings would usually appear barely even be differentiated from each other – their faces would often be painted identically and they would be lined up in order of size. What was supposed to be impressive to a contemporary audience was simply the number of healthy children that the family had produced. As you can see in the image below and unlike in the Gainsborough, there’s no interest in a sisterly relationship here, if that’s what these two unknown ladies are!

The Cholmondeley Ladies

‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’, British School, 1600–10  © Tate Gallery

It would be many centuries more before a concept of childhood began to emerge and before children began to be dressed in clothes that weren’t simply scaled-down adult costumes. However by the time of seventeenth century artists like Sir Anthony Van Dyck we begin to see in portraiture some new interest in a naturalistic observation of the gestures of babies and young children and a much better understanding of their anatomy. By the time of Gainsborough a century later child portraiture had finally started to reflect an understanding that children are different to adults and to portray them with a great deal more naturalism.

However it wouldn’t necessarily be right to see the history of child portraiture simply as a linear improvement throughout the centuries. There were plenty of pretty sickly paintings of children made by even very accomplished artists, such as the generally talented Sir Thomas Lawrence, below. This idealised chocolate box style dominated the Victorian period. In contrast an early work by an entirely untrained artist can be charming. American ‘folk art’ paintings may not be to everyone’s taste but I think this work by John S Blunt of a young girl (identified as ‘Miss Frances A Motley’ by a card beside her on the table) is is so charming.

Miss Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Miss Murray, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1826 © Frick Collection New York

Miss Frances A Motley by John S. Blunt

‘Miss Frances A Motley’, John S. Blunt, 1798–1835 © American Folk Art Museum, NY

Not exactly a portrait as such but my opinion this is one of the best drawings ever made by any artist. It’s a tiny exercise by the quite unsurpassed Rembrandt who is clearly drawing for practice from direct observation. It inspires me every time to get the pencils out and get sketching! It’s quite extraordinary how good this drawing is despite the brevity and economy of its strokes in a thick red chalk. In just a few marks he has captured everything about this little scene – the unsureness of the toddler, the encouragement of the women assisting him or her, the relationship between all three. He’s captured the balance of each figure perfectly, in their unusual poses. There are many more wonderful Rembrandt sketches of children but here’s another of my favourites and a reminder that there never was a golden era when tiny children behaved themselves perfectly: his hilarious Child In A Tantrum

Two Women Teaching A Child To Walk by Rembrandt

Two Women Teaching A Child To Walk, Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1635-37, © Trustees of the British Museum

Another couple of portraits by an artist of his child – one a finished small painting and the other a study in chalks. Peter Paul Rubens is a little out of fashion these days which is a shame as he was such a wonderful draughtsman. The first image is of his little daughter Clara Serena Rubens, and again I like it’s clear light, bright eyes and ruddy colouring of her cheeks and lips which is contrasted with the grey-green underlayer that he’s used. Most of all I like the way that it’s absolutely un-idealized, capturing the asymmetry of her eyes and the personality hovering around the direct look and little grin that’s threatening to break out around the mouth. The little girl was only five at the time and I find it a very touching child portrait. In technical terms Rubens has concentrated all the detail around Clara’s head and hairline, leaving her clothes sketchier and less detailed. This is a technique that those Elizabethan artists wouldn’t have understood but it’s common in a portrait thereafter and serves to draw attention to the face and the character of the sitter.

Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens by Peter Paul Rubens

Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens, 1616 © Princely Collection of Lichtenstein

Presumably this sketch was made from life by Rubens simply as practice or as a preparatory drawing for a painting – I can imagine that his little boy Nicolaas served as a model for many a cherub in his paintings. It’s just a beautiful drawing of a very young child. It’s worth following the link below to look at this drawing really close up to see the variety of maks with which Rubens conveys the shapes and forms with black and red chalk. He cross-hatches areas of skin, building up faint crossed lines to indicate shading and colour but never covering more of the paper than he needs to, leaving areas of blank where the light is hitting the child’s face. When it comes to hair however he draws all his lines in the same direction as the hair itself. There’s very little if any smudging of the chalk to create shadowing. All of these are techniques I try to follow – using lines to encourage a sense of energy and trying to avoid dulling a portrait by my rubbing pencil shading into my paper. This drawing shows that you can create darkness just by hatching and cross hatching, and when you do this you preserve luminosity even in the darker areas because little bits of white (in this case cream) from the pale paper still shine through the marks. It’s also nice to consider trying a drawing that isn’t just in black on white nor a fully coloured pencil drawing. With just two different colours Rubens has created a richly image which conveys the child’s healthy colouring.

Here you can see the same son with his older brother, painted by Rubens at a much later date, and there are some other beautiful chalk drawings of his older brother Albert in the Hermitage museum in Russia, which you can find with a quick Google search.

Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Neckless by Peter Paul Rubens

Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Neckless, Peter Paul Rubens, 1619 © Albertina Museum Vienna

This is our last portrait by a relative of its subject, this time not a father but an older brother: the Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt. Edelfelt had three younger sisters and this is Berta who was around seven at the time that her brother painted her. It’s a lovely painting in the handling of the thick and fairly loose paint around her face and choppy page-boy fringe, and you feel that only this really is a painting that only a close family member could have made, in the way that it captures Berta’s uncompromising expression. It conveys so much of the character of the stubborn looking little girl.

Portrait of Berta Edelfelt by Albert Edelfelt

Portrait of Berta Edelfelt, Albert Edelfelt, 1876 © Bequeathed to Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Some portraits now by two of the best artists of the French Impressionist movement. If you really want to see some great child portraits I’d encourage you to look up the work of 19th century artists Mary Cassatt (American-born but working in Paris) and Berthe Morisot.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that Mary Cassatt painted and drew so many children just because she was a woman. As a female painter she had little choice. A respectable woman of Cassatt’s class could go to the opera or ballet (although certainly not backstage) but could not frequent the same bars, cafes and other public places beloved of the male impressionists who defined their ‘modernity’ by painting the prostitutes, dancers and working class women that they encountered there. Cassatt didn’t enjoy the freedom to walk around freely and unescorted and it wasn’t even considered seemly for a woman to paint an adult male. Therefore in a sense Cassatt did focus on painting images of children because she was a woman, but only insofar as her access to other subjects was so restricted. However despite not having children herself she was such an acutely accurate observer that her paintings portray children with a naturalism rarely seen before or since. No one had recorded the bodies, faces and early gestures of a child so well. Her older children are utterly un-sentimentalised and she captures the frequent boredom of childhood in many of her images. There are too many brilliant paintings, drawings and pen-and-ink works to choose from, but this well-known painting shows you the radicalism of her technique and the wayt she captures the behaviour of the young child and its relationship to its mother.

Emmie And Her Child by Mary Cassatt

Emmie And Her Child, Mary Cassatt, 1889 ©  Wichita Art Museum, Kansas

Even more technically experimental than Cassatt was Berthe Morisot, who as a married woman with a child lived and even more constrained life than Cassatt despite her involvement with the Impressionist movement. She made many lovely paintings of her daughter Julie, but I particularly like this painting of a teenage girl. I love the style of her fleeting brushwork and the way the girl seems so lost in herself and her inner life as she poses for her portrait. There’s an edgy uncertainty to her that makes the portrait so much more interesting – as someone put it, “Morisot is alive to a world of understated, often domestic emotion that scarcely registers in the work of the male Impressionists.”

Jeannie Gobillard by Berthe Morisot

Jeannie Gobillard, Berthe Morisot, 1894, Private collection

My last choice is by  the famous artist John Singer Sargent whose very modern Portrait of Madame X scandalised society in 1884 by revealing its subject’s bare shoulders. Sargent may have painted high society but his portraits were daring and radical and he made a number of fantastic child portraits that explore the individuality and hint at the psychology of the sitter as much as his adult paintings did. This one is a little gentler but one of my favourites for the clear-eyed engagement and liveliness of the little girl it depicts. Twelve year old Eleanor Townsend meets our gaze with confidence and self-possession, accentuated by the strong red of her necklace and sash. The liveliness of the image is underscored by the speed with which the rough brush strokes appear to have been applied to her clothes and her amusing fluff-ball of a terrier. It’s a wonderful image of a clearly spirited child who tragically died just two year later of peritonitis.

Miss Beatrice Townsend by John Singer Sargent

Miss Beatrice Townsend, John Singer Sargent, 1882 © National Gallery of Art Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

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