Unknown artist

Head of a boy

Head of a boy by Unknown artist

Artwork Detail

This bust-length painting of a plump-faced child, seen at three-quarter view, wearing a simple white collar and a loose-fitting velvet jacket is not a portrait, but represents a new ideal and archetype of childhood that developed in France in the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment in France brought about a revolution in thinking about infant development, propelled by the publication in 1762 of a book Emile: or On Education by Geneva-born philosopher and novelist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). This wildly popular ‘novel’ promoted the idea that children should spend their early formative years living unrestricted and close to nature, free to develop both physically and morally away from the ills of society.

Spanning the period of Emile’s greatest impact, the painters François Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) and their contemporaries produced numerous images of infants that promoted Rousseau’s idea of early childhood as a distinct and precious phase, in which freedom and nature play a vital role. While the author of this head has not been identified, Rousseau’s influence can be seen in the rendering of the child’s face and clothes. Full cheeks and a fresh complexion signify wholesome nutrition and fresh air, while soft and loose-fitting clothes allow the freedom of movement necessary for the development of strong bones. The thatch of riotous, uncut curls indicates the child is exempt from adult conventions and his charmingly bright glance and slightly-turned head indicate his alert mental state and general readiness to see, hear and learn.

Head of a boy
Unknown artist
Production date
oil on canvas
590 x 512 x 80 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Cécile Kruyfhooft, Belgium, 2023
Accession no
No known copyright restrictions
International Art
Display status
On display

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