Childhood Innocence Portrayed in the Treasures of Kenwood House

Nov. 28, 2012
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Children hold a special place throughout the December holidays, even at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Their current exhibition “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London” offers a unique glimpse of this precious time in life through a historical perspective. As the owner of the collection that became the Iveagh Bequest when he gifted the art to the British Parliament, Lord Iveagh had three children. Featuring these nine portraits of children in the very last gallery of the exhibition draws homage to the changing ideals of how this period in life was perceived. 

Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and Sir Joseph Wright of Derby all painted  childhood portraits for the Iveagh Bequest. During the late 18th century, a new concept of childhood was being born, where these little people were seen other than as miniature adults. Children were acknowledged as developing and growing, playing and chasing dogs, instead of merely being silent unless spoken to, which these portraits were suddenly illustrating with splendid accomplishment

Musuem curator William Randolph noted that the child's clothing changes throughout the collection. Once dressed as the tiny adults they were expected to be in public, children then begin to wear clothing that suits their smaller bodies and might be used for the type of activities they actually do, such as play that they were engaged in. The images approach their lives with a learning by doing attitude that some of these portraits display.

One of the most tender pictures of childhood comes from Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Louisa Murray, Miss Murray (1824-26). Clothed in her apron and flowing dress, Lousia drops flowers as if she just picked them from the garden in a whimsical image where she almost dances off the canvas with her one foot raised in a playful point. Louisa exudes innocence and exuberance that was beginning to define late 18th and 19th century perspectives on childhood. Transforming childhood into a stage in life for learning and playing, or amusing themselves in the garden picking flowers while memorizing the flowers' names. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a brother and sister, John and Juliana, in an outdoors setting for their father in The Angerstein Children (1782-85), Capturing one’s legacy by having your family painted during this prime time of life was the new fashion for 18th century Great Britain.Their father, who eventually purchased and gifted a large portion of London’s National Gallery of Art Collection, must have proud to hang this magnificent dual portrait in his manor house

Also displaying a “fashion” for “fancy paintings” which used theatrical candlelight for dramatic effect, was Sir Joseph Wright of Derby’s Two Girls Dressing a Kitten (1768-67). While the kitten in the painting appears utterly distressed to wear a bonnet, the two girls are depicted playing, doing normal childhood activities, which eventually influenced how children and childhood was perceived in culture.  

Also note Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Lady Mary Leslie (1764), shown painted with a lamb, the perfect symbol of innocence, reflecting this special period in life. Today when one snaps their own children’s portraits on a camera or cell phone that can be transferred quickly by email or text throughout the holiday season, one again captures this time of innocence and laughter. Moments that pass by in fleeting memories, as surely as these artists painted portraits where these particular children live in this innocence for centuries to come.

Remember this tradition when viewing the exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, these treasures from Kenwood House. The 21st century might try and view this stage in life as the18th century did again, a time for learning and playing, retaining that quiet innocence by honoring the Kenwood House legacy. In contemporary society, children mature so quickly losing that beguiling innocence before they enter middle school. Children and the holidays seem to be intertwined and before this exhibit disappears, visit this gallery concentrating on these enchanting children's portraits. Then walk away remembering the delights of this time while enjoying any children in one's own life over the upcoming festive season. Reveling in a child’s joy and laughter because ultimately children become the hope for continuing humanity's future.  

The Milwaukee Art Museum presents "Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London" through January 13. For further programming on the exhibition and children's activities featured at the museum over the holiday season, please visit  


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