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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why are art babies so ugly?


The Haller Madonna, Albrecht Dürer, 1498
We interrupt this regularly-scheduled programming to address the age-old question of why babies in paintings are often deformed, distorted, and generally ugly. (And, BTW, this phenom isn’t limited to Renaissance babies, no matter what the current meme says.) It isn’t because the artists can’t draw; I’ve included examples by superb draftsmen.

There are a lot of theories about this, covering context to symbolism to the possibility that earlier babies just were not that good looking in the first place.

The Baby Marcelle Roulin, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Having had several babies myself, and having done a lot of figure painting, I think the answer is much simpler: babies make lousy models. They squirm and howl when they’re uncomfortable, and they won’t hold a pose. They have no muscle tone and very little neck, and they wobble. Pre-photography, the best the artist could do was limb in a few lines and return the pathetic little creature to its mother’s arms.

The Three Ages of Man, Titian, 1511
On the other hand, I’ve always wondered why so many Renaissance infants are pictured wearing jewelry. Didn’t they get the memo about choking hazards?

Newborn Baby in a Crib, Lavinia Fontana, c. 1583
Enough of this. I have a new little grandson to go visit. He arrived squalling into the world last night, and I haven’t yet begun to paint his portrait.


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