The presence of young figures in artwork has changed and adapted through history. Youthful beings, such as babies and toddlers, have been known to represent innocence, purity, and fragility. With time comes development of artistic styles; as artists and sculptors developed the standard of human proportions, they also developed a proportional standard for children and babies. Artistic advances have been made throughout time, allowing for more realistic depictions of youthful figures as they would appear in real life. However, like any subject in an artwork, all components of a piece are influenced by the artistic themes and movements of their given time. While the meaning and symbolism regarding youth in artwork has remained generally consistent throughout time, the depictions of such beings varies greatly.

Now, let’s break things down a bit. How many people look at pieces of artwork with nice, calm looking babies prominently displayed and think “wow, this piece makes me feel angry and anxious?” The answer, or at least from what I can tell, is not many people. By nature, babies alleviate stress. They can make people forget about large scale problems, even if it is for a short period of time. They bring a person’s mind to a simpler place, therefore allowing for happy thoughts to consume the individual. The same theme applies to a piece in which the youthful figure is in some type of turmoil or distress. Therefore, the emotion of the child affects the overall emotion of the piece.

The emotions displayed by babies in artwork directly correlate with the intended emotion evoked by the piece. If the baby is angry, the piece is typically hectic and frantic. If the baby is happy, the piece is meant to be tranquil. The innocence of babies allows for a lack of filter in regards to their emotions. If they are feeling a certain way, there is nothing telling them to keep from displaying their emotions. The display of infant emotions in artwork can be seen as mimicking the basic unfiltered human nature. This allows for artists to give a very obvious display of their intended theme in any given piece. Young figures in artwork have the power to alter the overall message of the piece.


Two girls playing ephedrismos

Late 4th to 3rd century B.C.E., Greece


This terracotta sculpture depicts two young girls playing a game known as ephedrismos. This game entails two people throwing a ball or pebble at a stone in hopes of overturning it. The player who cannot overturn the stone is blindfolded and must carry the winner on their back, as depicted in the sculpture. The figures give off a sense of innocence and purity. This piece was created at a time prior to the establishment of ideal human proportions in artwork and therefore, the makeup of the girl’s bodies is essentially a smaller version of a grown person. In real life, this is not the case. The proportions of the piece, or lack thereof, show the aged nature of this piece. However, although the body makeup is not ideal, the carefree and lively vibe given off by the girls adds a youthfulness that makes up for the incorrect body proportions and lack of liveliness.


Virgin and Child in Majesty

1150-1200 CE, Auvergne, France

This piece, made from walnut wood with paint, was created in the Auvergne region of France. The pose shown, with the child Christ seated in the Virgin’s lap, is known as “Sedes Sapientiae,” which means “Throne of Wisdom.” The child represents wisdom, and was therefore often depicted holding a bible. This type of sculpture was typically small and given as a gift. It is noticeable that baby Christ looks like a small version of a grown man. This might have to do with the fact that with age comes wisdom, and the sculptor and painter wanted to reinforce Christ's aged wisdom. The aged depiction of the child could also be due to a lack of of experience with creating youthful figures. The sculptor and painter could have simply made a small-scale image of a grown man, due to experience with depicting grown men. In any case, the child looks like a grown man who was made proportionally smaller than the Virgin Mary.


The Small Cowper Madonna- Raphael


Oil on Panel

In the Renaissance, the virgin and child scene differs from its predecessors in that the figures are softer and more lifelike, and are looking out towards the viewer but not making eye contact. The light and serene nature of the piece, as well as the detail and fine brush work is quintessential of the High Renaissance, and the child's calm facial expression adds a sense of serenity to the piece. The interlocking pose displayed was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, and clearly displays Raphael’s understanding of human proportions. Raphael was also inspired by da Vinci's exploration of the human anatomy. The child is slightly rotund, and not idealized much like other images of young Jesus were. Jesus’s plain and innocent expression as well as his physical contact with the Virgin show his dependence on her and the power of their connection. During this time period, depictions of the virgin and child were often given as wedding presents.


The Rape of Ganymede- Rembrandt Van Rijn

1636, the Netherlands

Oil on canvas

This piece embodies the power of emotion evoked by babies in artwork. The distraught facial expression of the baby adds to the powerful nature of the piece. Had the child's expression been more calm, the entire dynamic of the artwork would be different. While slightly disturbing, the work contains large amounts of drama, complemented by expressive use of light and dark. The piece is supposedly poking fun at Michaelangelo’s depiction of the same story. Some interpret this piece as being a parody of more traditional paintings, with an overly-emphasized emotional face on the child. Compositionally, the piece resembles many made in the same time period. The piece also contains Baroque elements such as the baby's limbs protruding out towards the viewer.

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Las Meninas- Diego Velazquez

1656, Spain

Oil on canvas

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez, is a landmark in painting from Spain in the seventeenth century. The focal point of the piece is the five-year-old daughter of the royal family of Spain. She is being waited on by her servants, and is poised in a regal manner. In earlier group scenes containing children, the young are usually off to the side and not the center of attention. This piece differs from previous group portraits because it is posed in a candid sort of way, as if a snapshot in time. The young girl sets a tone of grandeur and pompousness, looking out towards the viewer as if they are below her socially.


Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California- Dorothea Lange

February 1936

Gelatin silver print

In this photograph, taken during the great depression, a mother protects her young baby while her two other children huddle around her. The photographer, Dorothea Lange, was employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and took pictures to document farm laborers as they migrated Westward to escape the treacherous dustbowl conditions in search of work. The image quickly became the symbol of the struggles American farmers faced during the Great Depression. The image epitomizes the ideal relationship between children and adults. Fear and sadness are evoked by the two children around the woman, as she offers protection. Innocence is also provided with the presence of the baby. The image displays super-realism in that Lange did not attempt to idealize the scene, the figures are dirty and clearly fatigued. Lange’s goal with this image was to document exactly what she encountered.


Guernica, Pablo Picasso


Oil on canvas

Guernica, a massive and overwhelming abstract painting by Pablo Picasso, shows the capability of youthful figures in art to be able to display a sense of innocence. The piece was created after a bombing in Guernica, Spain before World War II. German planes dropped bombs on the town, intentionally leading to nearly 400 civilian deaths. Picasso’s abstract depiction of that infamous day shows the hectic nature of the scene shedding light on the atrocity that took place. The piece as a whole is disturbing to the viewer and evokes raw emotion in the viewer through the pain present. In the bottom left corner, a woman cries in anguish while holding a dead child. The presence of this dead child in the painting adds a very real idea of the murder of innocence. Without the child present, there is less evidence to show that the attack was aimed towards everyday civilians.

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