The Lord gives youth, and takes it away, too

Imagining Childhood
February 23, 2007

About halfway through this attractive and highly informative book the author recounts seeing in a Roman sanctuary a tiny pair of shoes accompanied by a letter signed " una Mamma " in which the donor, in spite of her suffering, thanks Christ for having allowed her to enjoy her child's first steps. It is characteristic of Erika Langmuir's control over her eclectic material that this rare moment of empathy occurs not in a discussion of children's premature death but in one of the richest chapters of the book - that devoted to "The first steps and the baby-walker".

Langmuir's interests do not lie with material culture. Occasionally, of necessity, a Greek vase or an early carving appears, and prints are adduced where appropriate, but this book is primarily about paintings. After an introduction on parents, part one contains three chapters: "Protection", "Innocent victims" and "Mourning and consolation". Part two offers chapters on swaddling, learning to walk, play and adult laughter, and children's expressiveness. The final part contains only one chapter, on dynastic portraits, and the book concludes with a rather tacked-on section on bubble-blowing. Langmuir's style is magisterial and sometimes a trifle preachy: there are lots of "There can be no doubt that...".

This is an erudite book, but Langmuir wears her learning lightly. As the title is general, it may be as well to forewarn readers that most examples (reproduced largely in colour) come from the Mediterranean (Classical Antiquity and Renaissance Italy) and Northern Europe (Dutch and Flemish), although Velázquez gets into the final chapter, and France and Britain are occasionally visited. While readers such as I, unable to resist the chubby legs in their wrinkly red hose of Federigo - the youngest of the boys in Titian's great family portrait The Vendramin Family - will be happy to meet him here, many loved icons, such as Picasso's Child with a Dove , are absent from a work that does not deal with photography and barely enters the 20th century.

Chapter three reveals how Langmuir weaves her way between classical mythology, Christian theology and humanism. She reminds us that the death of the majority of children has gone unrecorded and introduces us to Egyptian graves containing skittles, then to Greek funerary practices, where there is a clear distinction between the representation of a living subject as opposed to imagery that articulates the afterlife. A gravestone (c 340BC) depicts a child in relief holding her doll while her pet dog jumps up. Without suggesting a direct connection, she quotes Plutarch's letter to his wife on the death of their "longed-for daughter". In conformity with the methodology of this book - a Warburgian notion of the migration of images - Langmuir then cuts to a "postscript" in the Northern Renaissance where the illustrator of a 1502 edition of Virgil's Aeneid faithfully follows his text until he gets to the "souls of infants weeping... plunged in bitter death", at which point he shows a cosy scene in which a baby is suckled and children play. Narratives on Roman sarcophagi follow.

The incorporation of dead children into living environments takes us in a leap to Edwin Elmer's Mourning Picture (c 1889), depicting his dead daughter outside her home in Massachusetts. A fascinating discussion of various pictorial strategies for consolation - babies carried to heaven or reincarnated in a later-born sibling - brings in Ghirlandaio's altarpiece in Florence, containing a depiction of the posthumous miracle of St Francis resuscitating the notary's son. This, Langmuir explains, had special significance for the Sassetti family because they had lost a teenage son and, at about the same time, conceived a second son. The face of the notary's son is thought to be a portrait of this child.

There will be aspects of Imagining Childhood that may irritate some scholars, such as its insistence on the Gombrichian schema ( Art and Illusion , 1959) at the expense of an interactive approach to imagery and the social. It is, for example, unclear why Bouguereau's La Famille Indigente , with which Langmuir raps a fellow scholar over the knuckles, cannot be simultaneously a thematic rendering of Charity and a reminder of conditions in Paris. After all, the contemporary review Langmuir cites is itself rhetorical. No sustained attempt is made to rationalise the choice of examples - images of individuals known to have lived are discussed along with figures from biblical and mythological sources. The refusal to engage with histories of the family may be seen as a weakness, but the book's great strength is that it establishes both the difficult relationship between imagery and real life and the centrality of pictured children to debates on the human condition.

Marcia Pointon is professor emerita of history of art, Manchester University, and honorary research fellow, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Imagining Childhood

Author - Erika Langmuir
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 262
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 30010131 7

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