Children in Art

This feature looks at some of the images in the collection that focus on children. The representation of children in western art has varied greatly over the centuries. From traditional portraiture and imagined scenes of play, to images of loss and hardship, see how at how artists have portrayed children and the notion of childhood at different periods of time.

Some of the earliest illustrations of children in western art are medieval depictions of the infant Jesus Christ. In these images he is shown as a mini-adult; a small man, stiff and unnatural. These were pictures that were made to teach devotion, not to please the eye or display the artist’s skill. Often the baby interacted as an adult would do, with his hands giving instruction or blessing.

Italian School, Virgin and Child, about 1250
Italian School, The Virgin and Child with Saint Andrew and Saint Peter, (unfinished) late 15th century

Before the fifteenth century, most children in art were either depicted in biblical stories, or as Cupid, the Roman god of love. Child portraiture was initially the preserve of the very rich. Royalty and the aristocracy had enough money to pay for pictures of their entire family, or sometimes they chose to celebrate a specific heir. Because of the expectation of the time, children from wealthy families did not really experience a time that we would now consider a 'childhood'. They were expected to behave and dress as miniature adults, whereas children from poorer backgrounds were rarely depicted, most were sent to work as soon as they were able.

Arnold Bronckorst, James VI and I, 1566 - 1625. King of Scotland 1567 - 1625. King of England and Ireland 1603 - 1625, about 1574
George Jamesone, Anne Erskine, Countess of Rothes, d. 1640. Wife of the 6th Earl of Rothes. (With her daughters, Lady Margaret Leslie, 1621 - 1688 and Lady Mary Leslie, b. 1620), 1626

As the Renaissance flourished in Europe, images of the Christ child developed; he became a more tender, humanised baby. By the High Renaissance, artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo were creating beautifully believable, devotional images of the Holy Family, and accompanying angels.


It was during the European Renaissance that the concept of childhood began to emerge. Rather than being seen as 'incomplete' or 'unfinished' adults as they had previously, children were viewed as individual beings in need of protection and nurturing, and their learning was the responsibility of the adults around them. The dawn of the capitalist era generated a large moneymaking middle class, often in the Protestant sea-trading countries such as Britain and the Dutch Republic. These new family types had an ideology centered on bringing up their children well. They had knowledge and had gained wealth - two things their offspring could inherit.

Jan de Braij (de Bray), Portrait of a Boy (Aged 11), dated 1662
Nicolaes Maes, A Dutch Family Group, mid 1650s
Sir Anthony van Dyck, Princess Elizabeth, 1635 - 1650 and Princess Anne, 1637 - 1640. Daughters of Charles I, 1637

Most formal portraits of children were still the preserve of Royalty and the aristocracy. The rise of ‘superstar’ court artists, such as Sir Anthony van Dyck, led to some beautiful examples of closely observed portraits of the royal children to whom they had access. His portrait of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne is one of the most popular images in the collection. It was made in 1637 while van Dyck was Principal Painter in Ordinary to King Charles I in London. It was intended as a preparatory sketch for a larger family portrait group, but this study lacks the grandeur of formal portraits and is a moving, and more intimate image of childhood innocence. Court artists had the tricky task of expressing royal children's 'childishness', but also preserving their status. This was especially true when the child might one day become Monarch.

Diego Velázquez, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618
Jan Steen, A School for Boys and Girls, about 1670

By the seventeenth century, different types of images of children began to emerge. Velázquez's trance-like boy in An Old Woman Cooking Eggs shows a fresh level of realism in the depiction of a child. It has been suggested that this painting is based on popular Spanish novels of the time featuring the adventures of a ‘picaro’, which was essentially a roguish young street urchin.

Children appear in a great deal of seventeenth-century Northern European art, a region where genre painting was extremely popular. Sometimes children appeared in semi-allegorical paintings such as Jan Steen’s A School for Boys and Girls, where the pupils are shown behaving exactly as children do. The concept of childhood as a defined stage of learning and development is being celebrated. But the composition and poses of some of the figures in this unruly school room were actually based on figures in Raphael’s famous ‘The School of Athens’ fresco in the Vatican. This alludes to the learning and teaching concepts handed down from the greatest scholars of antiquity such as Plato, Aristotle and Pythogoras.

Jeremiah Davison, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, 1702 - 1768, and his family, 1740
Attributed to William Mosman, Sir James Macdonald 1741 - 1766 and Sir Alexander Macdonald 174/5 - 1795, about 1749
David Allan Sir John Halkett of Pitfirrane, 4th Bart (1720 - 1793), Mary Hamilton, Lady Halkett and their Family Dated 1781

The art of the Netherlands traditionally had a strong influence on Scottish artists. The Protestant Reformation meant that Scottish artists did not have the lucrative patronage of the church that artists in Catholic countries enjoyed. They therefore often worked on a smaller, more domestic scale for patrons who could afford paintings to decorate their homes. Children were very much celebrated as the heirs to great family titles and estates.

Sir David Wilkie, Detail from Pitlessie Fair, 1804
George Paul Chalmers, The Legend, begun about 1864 - 1867

The painter Sir David Wilkie began his career as a genre painter, very much inspired by examples of Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century genre paintings, but also by Scottish folklore and traditions that were celebrated in contemporary literature. His early ‘portrait’ of his native village of Pitlessie in Fife shows a cross-section of society, and it is teaming with children. Many of the figures in this painting were actually observed from life.

Wilkie’s mischevous and realistic children, and his detailed documentation of Scottish village life was emulated by later nineteenth cantury painters like Sir George Harvey and John Phillips. The novels of Sir Walter Scott also provided a great oportunity for Scottish artists to show children participating in roles from his books. George Paul Chalmers’ The Legend is an illustration of Scott’s novel The Pirate, where the children are entranced as the elderly seer called Ulla Troil tells them her tales. It is a wonderful representation of Scotland's oral storytelling tradition where tales are passed from one generation to the next, and remembered by repeated exposure.

Work or Play?

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace and began to make its mark on society, the cost for some children was heavy. It was a period that simultaneously romanticised The Child as living in an ‘Age of Innocence’, while also benefitting from the exploitation of societies’ most vulnerable members. Both ends of the spectrum drew the attention of artists. Intense, sentimental images of children's emotional development emerged, such as Gruez's grieving, although undoubtedly wealthy pet-owning child in Girl With a Dead Canary. At the same time there are images of children playing their part in the modern industrial society; the young boys of the lead processing operation in David Allan's paintings show the hard physical labour demanded of the children, who were sometimes as young as nine.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, A Girl with a Dead Canary, 1765
David Allan, Lead Processing at Leadhills: Pounding the Ore, probably 1780s

The harsh reality was that not all children enjoyed much of a childhood, and many entered employment at a very young age. As the nineteenth century progressed, more realistic images of children at work appear. The plight of the worker (child or adult) was under scrutiny, and wealthy landowners and industrialists who owned the factories and mines wanted to adorn their houses with new paintings. They sought to celebrate the source of their wealth with images of ‘happy workers’ – unlikely to revolt. Realism was admired, but it was a heavily censored 'realism' of noble peasants and the virtuous poor.

Rural work for children was legitimately romanticised as it was seen as a continuation of the past – nature’s work such as harvesting, baiting fishing lines, gathering firewood and helping adults was literally more ‘natural’ than being sent down a coal mine or into a dangerous factory.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Pas Mèche (Nothing Doing), 1882
Two girls Binding Wood, about 1850

The girls binding wood in this photograph from about 1850 are the real-life equivalents of the fairytale woodcutter's daughter, or Little Red Riding Hood.

Artist's Children

Hugh Cameron, 'Buttercups and Daisies' The Artist's Daughter Margaret Cameron, 1881
William McTaggart, 'The Belle' The Artist's Daughter, Jean Isobel McTaggart, 1885-86

Perhaps the most tender images of children are to be found when artists use their own children or members of their family as the subject matter. The comfort of being able to observe them at home and not in a formal studio environment means that often, it is images of their own children that reveal artists at their most free and least constrained. In the 1880s, artists Hugh Cameron and William McTaggart both painted their young daughters, in-turn immortalising their child's appearance and individuality. The girls’ bright young faces and rosy cheeks display their youthful vigour, and there is a sense of paternal adoration in the way both girls are so closely observed. 

High rates of infant mortality meant that the loss of a child was sadly common. Artists were able to capture the likeness of their child, which at times came to serve as a memorial. Allan Ramsay’s portrait of his dead infant son is undoubtedly one of the most poignant images in the collection. His first-born son (also named Allan) died aged fourteen months. None of the children from his first marriage survived into adulthood. Years after the little boy died, Ramsay described to Lady Bute how he had painted his dead son, and ‘while thoroughly occupied thus, felt no more concern than if the subject had been an indifferent one. All grief was gone. But when he laid down his pencil it returned.’ This painting was found among Ramsay’s possessions after his death.

Allan Ramsay, Infant Son of the Artist, 1741
August Sander, My Wife in Joy and Sorrow, 1911

August Sander also chose to record the loss of his child when his wife Anna gave birth to twins. The photograph, which he called ‘My Wife in Joy and Sorrow, 1911’ commemorates a double birth and death: the birth of a daughter Sigrid and the loss of her twin, a son. It offers a stark and direct insight into the photographer’s private life.


The invention of the smartphone means that never in history have we had such ready access to a camera as we do today. Parents and carers can capture a child’s every move. Child photography was not always so easy, as the earliest cameras demanded that people stay still for the long exposure times that were required. As the photographic medium evolved and processes were improved, stiff studio portraits gave way to more spontaneous snapshots of children at play, and even tableaux photography of children ‘set in a scene’.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Lindsay Key, 1985. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Julia Margaret Cameron, The red and white roses, 1865

The American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became famous, perhaps even notorious, in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of the male nude and sexually explicit imagery. But he also took a number of charming photographs of children throughout his career. He cited the nineteenth century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron as one of his main influences. Her work was the first to introduce an intense spirituality to photography, and children were used as an embodiment of innocence.

Francine Dunkley, From the series 'L'Enfance et Les Chimères', 1990-1991
Albert Octavus Knoblauch, Pitch and Toss, 1909

Francine Dunkley explores her own childhood memories with the help of her daughter, Jessica. The photographs have an air of innocence and playfulness that most people associate with childhood. Although Dunkley shows us her daughter at play, she also invites us to peep into her own childhood confirming the notion that 'parents re-live childhood through their own children'.

Photographs of children and childhood provide a fascinating record of how growing up has changed, and how in other ways it has stayed the same. Images of children invariably draw strong reactions depending on their context. Happy famlily portrraits are recognised by some and are alien to those who did not experience such a fortunate start. Pictures of child poverty or distress are particularly harrowing, but the closer these get to the present day, the more disturbing they become. 

Ron Mueck, A Girl, 2006 © Ron Mueck

We inevitably bring our own experiences of childhood as a comparison to images of children. In his enormous 2006 sculpture A Girl, Ron Mueck captured a newly delivered baby at her first glimpse of the world. At over 5 meters in length, he uses scale to bring to the fore both the trauma and the miracle of birth. It is an ordeal which we have all experienced and none can recall, but a necessary part of being alive. For centuries, artists have been transfixed by our mysterious journey through life and all its possibilities. Children are just embarking on theirs, which is perhaps why as adults, images of children gives us pause for thought and self-reflection.

8 February 2018