Reconceiving childhood: women and children in French art, 1750-1814
Author(s)Strasik, Amanda Kristine
Contributor(s)Johnson, Dorothy, 1950-
History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
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AbstractMy dissertation examines visual representations of children and childhood in French art from the 1750s until the first decades of the nineteenth century. This period in France is distinct because of the sweeping social and political changes with which images of children and childhood were in dialogue, including the redefinition of bourgeois familial relationships, new medical discoveries that influenced how artists interpreted the human mind and body, the chaos of the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon and his codification of the laws of nature. By 1750, Enlightenment thinkers and social reformers viewed the education, nurturing, and protection of innocent children as among the fundamental moral acts that defined humanity. Childhood, once considered insignificant, became a special period of human development that women were naturally suited to cultivate. Amidst the corruption of the Ancien régime, the violence of the French Revolution, and the instability of the state, children were unthreatening emblems of social regeneration and hope. Throughout my dissertation, I explore how the complex written and visual language of nature informed artists’ conceptions of children and childhood during the long eighteenth century. Opposing themes of nature’s wildness, containment, wholesomeness, and mysteriousness in different forms paralleled discourses on children and child-rearing. Prominent eighteenth-century artists like Chardin, Boucher, Fragonard, Greuze, Vigée Lebrun, Marguerite Gérard, and others analyzed contemporary scientific, philosophical, artistic, and pedagogical movements to depict children naturally. Even when Romantic artists like Géricault or Prud’hon imagined nature as a dangerous or mystical entity, the emphasis on the unique truthfulness of a child’s character continued to be a subject of great interest, especially when the scientific community recognized child psychology and pediatrics as their own fields of medical study in the early nineteenth century. Compared to studies that have broadly surveyed the ideologies of childhood as reflected in art, my dissertation investigates the socio-historical contexts in which representations of children were commissioned, produced, and displayed. Why did revolutionary events, artists, and patrons appropriate images of the enlightened child? I propose that representations of children from this period offer indisputable symbolic value: they functioned emblematically to advance the morality of a woman’s reputation, or to philosophically communicate an idea about the state of French society during key moments of social and political upheaval. Through a study of images of pastoral children for Madame de Pompadour, representations of bourgeois children with pets, portrayals of the royal children during the French Revolution, and Romantic depictions of children in portraiture, my dissertation traces the socio-historical implications of the representations of children and childhood to make way for new interpretations of artworks.