Painting & Drawing blog


Historical examples to learn from

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 websites 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 their best child portraits.
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: a  sadly unfinished but very beautiful 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.

Gainsborough’s daughters were the subject of several of his most famous paintings including The Painter’s Two Daughters which is held at the V&A and also his justly-celebrated The Painter’s Daughters Chasing A Butterfly. The latter is a earlier painting of the two sisters running through some woods chasing a butterfly, their faces illuminated by bright light. It’s a lovely image as well, but as an example of child portraiture 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 portraits are those made of the child or children of the artist and I think you often get such an unflinchingly honest representation of character in these familial paintings which are 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 has recognized that a child’s skin is different to that of an adult; being softer, clearer and brighter. He’s illuminated it as much as possible in all three paintings mentioned and has shown its luminous quality by contrasting the girls’ pink cheeks with their visible pale blue veins and and applying the shadows on their faces and necks in a similar blue-green paint. It’s really worth seeing these paintings in person if you can, to see how he achieves this.

Off to a bad start

To fully appreciate just how good Gainsborough’s child portraits are it’s perhaps worth a quick Iook at some earlier paintings of children to see just how far child portraiture (and indeed portraiture of adults) had advanced since the preceding centuries. 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!

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 of life, so any baby was simply portrayed as a literally miniaturized adults.

The Cholmondeley Ladies

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

This is an anonymous and rather infamous potrait of two ladies (presumably sisters) from the late Elizabethan/Early Jacobean era. Although portraiture had become a unique genre by this period, a portrait did not aim to reveal the inner soul of its subject except perhaps in terms of their religious piety. Potraits were advertisements for the sitter’s wealth, status and above all for their dynastic success and if their children were included in the picture it was only to demonstrate this fact.

With the flat Elizabethan 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, nor any relationship between the subjects of a painting. Indeed siblings would usually appear barely even be differentiated from each other, lined up in order of size and painted with more or less identical features.

The Calmady Children by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Calmady Children by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1823, Met Museum NY

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. During the seventeenth century we began to see in portraiture a new interest in the 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 a concept of childhood as a particular phase in life. This could sometimes tip over into excessive sentimentality, as with the otherwise very talented Sir Thomas Lawrence, above. This idealised ‘chocolate box’ style dominated the Victorian period.
Two Women Teaching A Child To Walk by Rembrandt

Two Women Teaching A Child To Walk, Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1635-37,  The British Museum

There are however plenty of exceptions to this linear narrative and this early drawing by Rembrandt of two women helping a toddler to walk is not a portrait as such, but it is one of my absolute favourite drawings of a child. Every time I see it I feel inspired to get the pencils out and get sketching! It’s a quite extraordinarily well-drawn observational sketch, despite the brevity and economy of its strokes which are executed in a thick red chalk. In just a few marks Rembradnt has captured every aspect of this little scene: the unsteadiness of the toddler, the encouragement of the women assisting him or her, and the relationship between all three. The poses of the characters are quite challenging and yet he’s perfectly captured the posture and the balance of each figure.

There are many more wonderful Rembrandt sketches of children and another of my favourites (and a reminder that there never was a golden era when tiny children behaved themselves perfectly) is a very funny sketch known as Child In A Tantrum.

Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens by Peter Paul Rubens

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

Next we have several more portraits of the young children of artists. Peter Paul Rubens is a little out of fashion these days which is a shame as he was such a technically brilliant painter and this small study of his five year old daughter Clara Serena Rubens is very touching. I like the way he’s depicted her with a clear light shining on her bright eyes and on the ruddy colouring of her cheeks and lips which is contrasted with the grey-green underlayer. This portrait is absolutely un-idealized and Rubens depicts Clara’s healthy red complexion which hints at a lively personality and isn’t the slightest bit ‘lady-like’ as well as the careful observed asymmetry of her eyes and the personality so evident in her direct look and in the little grin that’s threatening to break out. He has concentrated all the detail around Clara’s head and hairline, leaving her clothes sketchier and less detailed in a technique which effectively draws attention to the face and thus her character. Clara’s rank, her clothes and anything else are unimportant.
Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Neckless by Peter Paul Rubens

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

Presumably this sketch by Rubens of his son Nicolaas was made simply as practice or as a preparatory drawing for a painting – I can imagine that Nicolaas may have served as a model for many a cherub. This is a beautiful drawing and you can see the wide variety of marks with which Rubens conveys the shapes and forms of Nicolaas’ face and hair in 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 paper to represent the lightest parts. When it comes to the hair however he draws all his lines in the same direction as the hair itself. There’s very little smudging of the chalk to create shadowing.

All of these are techniques I try to follow: using line direction to enhance a sense of energy in the image and trying to avoid dulling a portrait by rubbing my pencil shading into my paper. Rubens’ 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 the pale paper still shine through the pencil 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 an 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.

Portrait of Berta Edelfelt by Albert Edelfelt

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

Another family portrait, this time not by 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. I love this uncompromising painting that doesn’t try to hide the fact that Berta doesn’t seem thrilled with having to sit for her brother: you feel that only this really is a painting that only a close family member could have made. It conveys so much of the character of the stubborn looking little girl.
Emmie And Her Child by Mary Cassatt

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

Some portraits now by two of the best artists of the French Impressionist movement: Mary Cassatt (American-born but working in Paris) and Berthe Morisot. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that Cassatt and Morisot painted and drew so many children just because they were women. As a female painters they had little choice because respectable woman of their class didn’t enjoy the freedom to walk around freely and unescorted to the bars, cafes and other venues that formed the subject matter of so many iconic works by male painters of the period. It wasn’t considered seemly for a woman to paint an adult male and therefore both women’s access to subjects was restricted to other women and to children.

Despite not having children herself Mary Cassatt was such an acutely accurate observer that her paintings portrayed 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 children are entirely 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 way she captures the gestures of the young child and its relationship to its mother.

Jeannie Gobillard by Berthe Morisot

Jeannie Gobillard, Berthe Morisot, 1894, Private collection

Even more technically experimental than Cassatt was Berthe Morisot, who as a married woman with a child lived an 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.”
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

My last choice is by  the famous artist John Singer Sargent whose very modern painting 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 is 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 directly with confidence and self-possession, an impression enhanced 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 years later.









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