If there’s one rule in painting, it’s never to paint children or animals, and only the very bravest will risk life and limb painting children playing away from grown-ups. This weekend I take a brief look at what happens when artists ignore those rules, and try to paint the world of children at play.
It seems that it was Pieter Brueghel the Elder who first broke the rules in a big way, in visually documenting the many games of childhood.
His Children’s Games from 1560, also shown below in a detail, could at first pass for a straightforward view over a school playground. When you study his many figures carefully, you’ll see his illustrated encyclopaedia in its full glory.
The great majority of subsequent paintings of children show them constrained and most definitely under adult supervision, if not captivity. It was perhaps Francisco Goya who was brave enough to go out and paint the games of the children of Madrid.
Children Playing Soldiers revisits an earlier theme of his which had been a cartoon for a tapestry. As is so often the case, these children are demonstrating how foolishly adults can behave.
Children Playing with a See-Saw is more urban, with two pairs of children fighting, and a small monkey on a chain on the top of the wall at the right.
Children Playing Leap-Frog shows a group practicing acrobatics, some of them so poor that their clothing is torn badly, and hasn’t even been patched.
Children Bird-Nesting is the busiest of this series of six, showing a dozen children in all, most in torn and ragged clothing.
Anton Petter’s undated Children Playing in the Park shows a small group from more affluent families engaged in games of childhood: riding a sheep, and flying what looks to be a wooden pigeon, with a battledore and shuttlecock cast in the foreground.
Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s It’s Touch and Go to Laugh or No (1857) is set amid flowering heather in the Highlands of Scotland, although the figures were almost certainly painted in the studio. The young boy and girl are playing a game in which he’s trying to make her laugh by tickling her face with a stem of grass. The children who modelled for this were most probably those of the artist.
Her undated Bonfire appears to be another composite with figures painted in the studio, showing children getting grubby poking around in the embers of a small bonfire. The background could be almost anywhere in England or Wales, but there is a suggestion of another bonfire in the right distance, which might time the scene to Bonfire Night, 5th November. This may have been influenced by John Everett Millais’ earlier Autumn Leaves (1856).
Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s early painting of The Tea Party (numbered as her Opus 7) shows her step-daughter Laurense playing peacefully with her dolls.
Even Arnold Böcklin dared to break the rules, in his Summer Day from 1881. This shows a small river meandering through meadows, with summer flowers out on the grass, and white blossom on the strange-looking trees. Half a dozen children are playing in or near the water in the foreground, although at a safe distance from the artist.
Mary Cassatt, perhaps more typically known for her wonderful paintings of mothers and their infants, captured these two Children Playing on the Beach in 1884.