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Depictions of Children

The Four Seasons: Spring, 1893, by Léon Frédéric

As ideas about childhood changed over the centuries, European artists depicted children in different ways. Some of Europe’s earliest paintings and sculptures of children imagine Christ as an infant, but deferentially show him as a solemn, miniature adult. Portraits of children were rare before the 1500s and were usually commissioned only by the extremely wealthy. Artists rendering young nobles tended to endow their subjects with grown-up dignity, but as early as the 1600s childhood was beginning to be valued as a distinct, impressionable time in a person’s life. By the 1700s, depictions of children had become livelier and more common, not only because new members of the upper middle class were commissioning portraits, but also because moral philosophers of the era were interested in questions of children’s innocence and education. This trend continued into the 1800s and 1900s, especially as artists looked to children's imagination as a model for uninhibited creativity.