The representation of children and babies throughout the history of art varied over the centuries; there are imagined scenes of play, images of loss and hardship and, of course, the traditional portraits. Looking at them helps us to understand the own concept of childhood at different periods of time.
Some of the earliest depictions of children in western history of art are from Middle Ages, most of them are images of Jesus Christ presented as a mini-adult or a small man, very unnatural; and in them babies and children interacted as adults, sometimes they used their hands to give instructions. Those images were created with the aim to teach devotion, not to please the eye nor to show off the artist’s skill.
Until the 15th century, children were depicted in biblical contexts or as Cupid, the Roman god of love. The portraits of children were initially only for those who could afford to pay for them, in other words, royalty and aristocracy. Aristocratic children did not experience “childhood” according to the conception we have now, they were expected to dress and behave as adults. Whereas poor children were rarely depicted, most of them were sent to work once they were able.
During the Renaissance the images of children became more tender and humanised as we can see in the representations of Christ as child or baby, for example in the devotional images of the Holy Family accompanied by angels created by Raphael or Michelangelo.
New-born in a crib
This painting by Lavinia Fontana can be dated c.1583, scholars affirm that it is stylistic close to other portraits from the same period such as the portrait of Hippolita Savignani, Antonia Ghini or the monumental portrait of Gozzadini family of 1584. The theme of the childhood is important in Fontana’s career, since she was able to give voice to the childhood feeling fostered by the church.
With this portrait Fontana is offering a new and unconventional representation of the beginning of life, which did not have precedent in Bologna. To paint it she followed the rules of a state-portrait, putting attention to the symbols of status such as the pearl necklace or the fine laces of the sheets.
The baby is presented looking to the viewer very quiet, the identity of this new-born is still unknown. Undoubtedly is a child from a wealthy family, it has been thought that it may be a girl due to the pearl necklace; others suspect of a deceased child, which cannot be excluded although it contrasts with the child open eyes (the dead are usually represented with the eyes closed when they are depicted laying down).
After years of oblivion, the crib painting by Fontana in this portrait managed to attract attention at the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th with the revival of the interest in handcraft. The crib aroused such interest that it was reproduced in wood and sent to two Universal Expositions: the first in St. Louis in 1904 and the other two years later in Milan.