Why are we so fascinated by childhood?

Visitors view 'Untitled' by German artist Martin Kippenberger at Christie's auction house in central London
PHOTO: Reuters

Before the Enlightenment, children in art appeared as miniature adults - or not at all. But since the 18th Century they have come to cast a spell over painters, writes Alastair Sooke.

A smartly dressed boy is staring at a desk, his face rapt in concentration. Before him are books, paper and a quill in an inkwell - items associated with quiet study. Yet all these objects have been shoved aside, in order to make way for a small wooden top that is holding his attention. It lurches towards him, jinking about in mid-spin, providing a fleeting moment of distraction and fun.

This portrait, depicting the son of a jeweller called Charles Godefroy, was painted by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin almost three centuries ago, in 1735. Yet it represents something that many people would still recognise today. Who, as a child, hasn't faffed about in order to avoid homework?

During the 18th Century, The Boy with a Top probably conveyed an admonishing message: we should not allow trivial, passing pleasures to distract us from important matters. But that isn't why this masterpiece, now in the collection of the Louvre, which has lent it to the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris for a spellbinding new exhibition, The Child in Art, continues to charm. Rather, that's because Chardin has depicted little Auguste-Gabriel with such sympathy and close observation.

Look at the delicate solemnity of the boy's expression: we sense something of his interior life. And in making us consider this child as an actual individual, Chardin, as an artist, was doing something surprising and new.

"Chardin was the first artist to paint a portrait of an individual child," explains Marianne Mathieu, deputy director of the Musee Marmottan Monet, and co-curator of The Child in Art, which charts the evolution of the representation of childhood in French art, from the Middle Ages to the early 20th Century.

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