Primary Source of the Month
Portrait of Two Children, Boston, ca. 1760
attributed to Joseph Badger
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Portraits don't just show the viewer what a person looked like; they also show that person's wealth, status, interest, and personality traits. Artists show these elements through the setting, pose, clothing, accessories, props, and symbols they include in the portraits.
The painting of two children is attributed to Boston artist Joseph Badger. The children are mostly likely the son and daughter of Captain and Mrs. Stephen Brown of Massachusetts. Badger painted several portraits of children during his career, and some clothing items, the squirrel, and the coral toy are included in multiple portraits.
- Setting/Pose: The children are pictured outdoors in a peaceful setting. They are standing stiffly and both look serene and serious. The portrait is capturing these children at this moment in their lives (the toy and the squirrel emphasize their youth), but also suggests the adults they will become. Classroom idea: Ask students to imagine the negotiations between the artist and the subject (or the subject's parents). They would discuss the size of the portrait (also would it be full length, bust sized or just the face), what pose would be used, and also what the background might include (would it be the interior of the house or an imagined outdoor scene).
- Clothing: In the eighteenth century, boys wore dresses until they were "breeched," dressed in breeches like adult men. This usually occurred around the time they were fully potty-trained. The child in blue in this painting is a boy. His gown is more masculine that that of the little girl in yellow, and cut more like a man's coat, with buttons down the front and buttoned cuffs. His shoes are more masculine than the girl's dainty slippers. His head is uncovered, whereas the girl wears a lace cap. The stiff shape of both children's bodies comes from wearing stays (eighteenth-century undergarments much like corsets), which were designed to give them good posture. The little girl will wear stays her whole life, but the little boy will stop around the time he is breeched.
- Accessories/props: The boy in blue is holding a squirrel. Outdoor animals as pets are always associated with boys rather than girls in portraits. The girl is holding a toy with a coral handle. Coral was often given to children as a talisman to ward off disease and death, but it was also a hardy, splinter-proof material for teethers. For a portrait of children, the "props" that were chosen to be included would largely be there to keep the child occupied while the artist worked on the portrait. Pets, toys, or food in a child's hand not only tells us about the child's interest but also what the parents considered to be the best bribe for good behavior!
- Symbols of wealth: Only the wealthy could afford to have a portrait painted. This one is fairly large (approximately 41 x 50 inches). These children are displayed in fine clothing with lush details. The girl is holding a very finely detailed toy that is partly coral and partly silver, with tiny bells and a whistle on the top, and would have been expensive.
For more on portraits of children, visit Halting Time through the Illusion of Portraiture.
Interested in portraits? Check out our newest exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South,” which opens this March! Explore behind-the-scenes of this exhibit in this vodcast.