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Genre Scenes and Portraiture: Representing Childhood
Gender Genres
19.06.2020 | Nina Meisel

Helen Levitt, Boys, New York, ca. 1940, black and white photograph, © Film Documents LLC

The emergence of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century and its quest for social expression made genre scenes and portraiture popular. They took on a new meaning with the success of photography and portraiture at the end of the century. Women artists of the period, kept at a distance from major painting (historical and religious scenes, official portraits and so on), found a means of creative expression in these types of images.

The home and what it is composed of became a source of inspiration that allowed these female observers of the everyday to combine expectations of bourgeois life – being a good mother and wife – with those of being an artist. As such, Sigrid Hjertén (1885-1948), confined to her home where she raised her son, painted outdoor scenes viewed through her window. Artists also used their children as models. During the Old Regime, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) painted tender portraits of her daughter Julie. Later, Suzanne Valadon (1863-1938) portrayed the young Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) in his early years, and Claude Batho (1935-1981) assembled pictures of her daughters in the portfolio Portraits d’enfants (1975). Photographers such as Ergy Landau (1896-1967) and Olga Maté (1878-1961) specialised in, and flourished with, children’s portraits. In certain works, the mother would join her child, as in Mother and Child (1939) by Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012).

Certain artists are interested in the filial relationship and the way of expressing the loss of a child, which sometimes takes on a morbid approach in the case of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), or borders on psychosis with Alice Neel (1900-1984). Other female artists observe childhood outside the intimate setting, such as the Swedish painter Siri Derkert (1888-1973), who depicted street children in the despair of their daily lives. After her, photographers Eva Besnyo (1910-2003), Klara Langer (1912-1973) and Helen Levitt (1913-2009) made street children the subjects of their work. The theme of childhood is also a way for artists to find their own moments of innocence. It is this familiar universe that Moroccan artist Chaïbia Talal (1929-2004) tried to reconstruct in some of her paintings.

Everyday life can be found in the work of more contemporary artists who disrupt the traditional genre scene, stripping it of its static characteristic. Mary Kelly (b. 1941) no longer freezes instants of the everyday on a canvas or in a photograph; she uses events such as postpartum period to scrutinise and study it over time. In Mother Tongue (2002), Zineb Sedira (b. 1963) turns a banal scene of a discussion between a mother and her daughter into an analytical tool that transcends generations and materialises cultural boundaries.

While today women artists have taken their practice out of the home, some still find it interesting. However, this should not be considered the only source of inspiration for women artists. In fact, this theme is being called into question and women artists are emancipating themselves from it, sometimes even perverting it, as seen with South African artist Marlène Dumas (b. 1953), who depicts deformed children’s bodies in her paintings.

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