The Wallace Collection has an unusual number of extremely good portraits of children. As such I feel it offers the ideal way to introduce kids to art and the pleasures of spending time in one of London’s most underrated museums.
The paintings I have in mind range from cupids to naughty boys, sweet little girls to urchins – though there’s definitely a tendency towards the ‘aaah’ factor. Here then are my top ten paintings of children together with some notes to help you explain them to your little ones:
- The Dead Mouse. Louis Leopold Boilly’s paintings aren’t usually my favourites; they’re often rather sentimental and the narratives are quite strip-cartoonish. But this one is fun – a little boy trying to scare Mum and baby bro with a dead mouse. What he can’t see is the cat, lurking with its ears flattened, ready to spring. I suspect he’ll want sympathy and a sticking plaster in a minute – and it will serve him right for teasing the animals!
- The young Cicero reading. This work by renaissance Italian Vincenzo Foppa is full of charm. It’s simple but lively – the boy supports his book with one leg, smiling gently as he reads. Outside though, a storm is brewing.
- Miss Jane Bowles, in Reynolds’ portrait, cuddling her dog – she is nearly throttling the poor animal! Her face is full of happiness though and her eyes are huge, her smile trusting. Apparently she adored Reynolds, who told her stories and showed her all kinds of tricks – and it shows in this wonderfully warm painting.
- Greuze’s ‘Girl with doves’ – quite different in feel this has a sentimental and rather melancholy subject, though the doves look just as uncomfortable as Miss Bowles’s dog. There is something rather unhealthy in these plump girls with their half-open mouths and dark eyes – when they grow up, they become Bacchantes; but if you want more of the same, the collection has dozens of them.
- Fragonard’s ‘Boy as Pierrot’ has a wonderfully cheeky gaze, but the wash of blue and the misty brushwork make it seem as if he has stepped out of a dream. The big blue bow in his hat and the dark pupils of his eyes focus the painting and the single glint in his right eye seems to wink at you – he knows something you don’t and he’s not telling.
- Joan van Noordt’s boy with a falcon on a leash – brightly dressed in red and gold, holding the falcon up to make it bate. But his hat, with feathers foaming up on both sides, seems more likely to fly away. The subtext here is interesting; hunting had always been a noble pursuit – but the Dutch middle classes had now taken it over for themselves. So this portrait is a bit of seventeenth century bling – a triumphant affirmation by the boy’s family: “We’ve arrived!”
- Govaert Flinck’s young archer is a rare study of a black youth – looking rather glum as he sits for his portrait, grasping his bow tightly. From his sombre dress you might think he was a servant or a mercenary; but from his ear dangles a gleaming pearl.
- Fillipo della Valle’s ‘Cupid and Psyche’ is a horrid little thing, I’m afraid – utterly mawkish with its two chubby children pudgily kissing. It’s the eighteenth century equivalent of the garden gnome. But then it’s also rather cute – which made it popular in its day; it was much copied, though this is the original, in expensive marble rather than cheap porcelain or even cheaper earthenware.
- There’s a wonderful series of tiny bronze sculptures of baby musicians – little cherubs playing flutes, drums, the triangle, even the conch shell. I love these – they’re such serious little children, intent as young children always are on doing it exactly right and the figures are so full of life.
- And finally the ‘strawberry girl’ - another Reynolds because he painted children so well. The girl in question is a little waif collecting fruit – I reckon she’s just eaten a couple of strawberries and is trying to pretend she hasn’t. There’s something anxious in her face and her body language, with her little hands clasped over her apron. Unlike the Greuzes, which are sentimental and in the end rather cloying to my taste, this painting ends up being rather mysterious – and totally captivating.
Have you ever taken your children to an art gallery? Which other paintings would you recommend? Leave a comment below to tell us about your experience!
Many thanks to Andrea Kirkby for writing this article on behalf of London Hotels Insight.