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Children as passports

As you leaf through women’s self-portraits of the past you can’t help seeing how many children are by our sides. They are everywhere – as babies, as toddlers, as siblings. It’s unsettling.

Madame Vigée-Lebrun and her daughter, 1789

Madame Vigée-Lebrun and her daughter, 1789

Unsettling, because those children were our passports. They gave us permission to paint – not the children themselves (many of them probably wished their mothers weren’t so distracted by paint) but by inventing and relentlessly pursuing the notion of the family portrait, women were permitted, albeit grudgingly, a life of art.

It comes as no surprise to us that women have been painted as mothers since the earliest times. As audiences, we expect it, search for it even. Such effective type casting – beginning with the whole Mary and Jesus thing which I’ve talked about before in several other posts.

Interestingly though, the same cannot be said of men. On gallery walls everywhere there is an astonishing absence of men portrayed as fathers!

Men tended to paint themselves as ‘fathers’ of really big things, ideas mostly – fathers of democracy, fathers of war, fathers of peace, but funnily enough, never fathers of children! Strange really, especially when you think that every child has both a mother and a father.

So one of the important things to observe here is how subject matter becomes the property of certain artists over time. And its clear from looking around at how women paint themselves that painting yourself with your children was a key strategy in being seen as an artist since the early Renaissance times.

Here are another few early renditions of the same subject matter for you to peruse.

One Response to “Children as passports”

  1. […] to the way many women have painted theirs. It would be a compliment to call him a modern day Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Posted by carole on Dec 06, 2012 Self-portrait conventions, With children Tags: Archibald […]

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