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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Enlightenment family values

Sir Robert and Lady Buxton and Their Daughter Anne, 1786, by Henry Walton.
Those of us who look with dismay on recent trends in family structure might be surprised to learn that we are not the only age that has redefined family relationships.

Prior to the Enlightenment, very few children appeared in paintings. Unless you were the Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, a royal prince, or a bit player in a grand historical melodrama, the chances of you appearing in a portrait were slim. Of course, that reflected the role of children in society in general.

The Braddyll Family, 1789, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The strong pyramidal structure emphasizes their familial stability, and if you missed that they embody virtue and citizenship, then the copy of the Medici Vase (a famous Roman antiquity) is there to remind you. 
That changed with the need to explain society in terms of intellectual, rather than religious, values. To the eighteenth century man of letters, the family was the cradle of virtue and good citizenship. Children were no longer seen as stained by Original Sin; rather they became symbols of innocence. The child’s relationship with his parents changed (at least in the homes of the educated classes). It was less formal and more affectionate.

Gainsborough's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, 1756. Thomas Gainsborough painted his daughters many times. They are exquisitely affectionate portraits.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a great impact on the attitude of the Enlightenment toward children. “If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated,” said Rousseau. Rousseau believed that the countryside was a more natural and healthy environment for children. He believed children learned from the consequences of their actions, so their teachers should be more along the lines of a Roman tutelary deity—keeping the kid from hurting himself—than an old-fashioned pedagogue.

If any of this wants to make you snort milk up your nose, bear in mind that Rousseau gave up each of his children as newborns to a foundling hospital. Like all the best educational theorists, he was an idealist, not a practitioner. Nonetheless, his ideas influenced child-rearing across Europe, although in practice they were modified to meet the exigencies of reality.

The Byam Family, Thomas Gainsborough, 1762-66. George Byam and his wife Louisa sat for the original portrait in the early ‘60s. A few years later, they returned with their first child, Selina, and Gainsborough added her to the portrait.
Rousseau and other 18th century thinkers were borrowing from the classical writers in extolling the virtues of the countryside over city life. This extended to their preference for informal gardens in the naturalistic English style over the formal gardens of old Europe.  As one father told his son, “one of the main reasons we live in the country both summer and winter is to teach us from an early age that simplicity, moderation and industry are inextricably bound to our basic happiness.”*

Thus the family portrait on the grounds of an estate was meant not primarily to express the wealth of the sitter, but to place the family in a natural environment, with all the blessings that implied.

This week I am considering six forms of portrait painting that reached maturity during the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. These posts are based closely on the Royal Academy of Art’s 2007 show, Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830

*Child of the Enlightenment: Revolutionary Europe Reflected in a Boyhood Diary by Arianne Baggerman, Rudolf Dekker, and Diane Webb. 


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