Depictions of Children in Eastern and Western Paintings

This gallery is an investigation of themes commonly used in Eastern and Western paintings when depicting children. There are obvious differences between the two regions, such as the maintenance of religious motifs in the West;artists made it their goal to portray children as innocent, untainted and angelic, even at the cost of filtering out their personality. In the East there was no such religious restriction, as their philosophy did not call them to romanticize reality but embrace it, allowing for freer movement in illustrated children. However, the exhibit also identifies the difference between Western portraits over time, as artists began to open their minds to the methods of other cultures.

The earliest appearances of children in Western art were primarily for religion purposes. They were seen less as juvenile and more as the embodiment of divine figures, such as Christ or Heavenly angels.
Centuries after breaking free from Biblical context, social attitudes still bound children to their parents, disregarding any notion of their autonomy. Child art subjects were also dressed to heighten their androgyny, furthering their status as asexualized and pure; segregated from the "adult world."
When artists began to depict children with more autonomy ca. the 17th century, they still dressed them in starchy high-fashion attire, posing them in stiff, artificial postures. Youthful exuberance was only depicted to a mild and controlled extent, and paintings mainly sculpted child subjects as "miniature adults."
Mary Cassatt's work encapsulates the Western art world's portrait transition from stiff to sincere. Known to have participated in Japonisme, she implemented the common motifs of popular Japanese artwork at the time. Implementing the East's natural postures added a heartwarming charm to her work that pre-Romantic portraits lacked.
The dramatic transition of children's mannerisms in European art correlated with the growing popularity of Japonisme at the time. Eastern art commonly depicted dynamic movement in younger subjects.
Comparing this piece with the one previously shown (both made within a few years of each other) it is clear that by the turn of the 19th century, Western paintings of children finally began to match the playful tones of those the East.
Ancient Chinese court painters were pivotal in the development of this tendency. Zhou Wenju (active ca. 900 AD) has been acclaimed for his ability to capture the vitality of the royal children, seeking reference for their shapes and movements through observation rather than constructing a staged environment.
Other notable Chinese painters include Su Hanchen and Zhang Xuan. Like Zhou, these royal court artists are remarked for their manipulation of facial expressions to communicate naivete and fascination.
Implied movement continued to appear in Eastern paintings for centuries, influencing art in neighboring countries like Japan. Famous ukiyo-e artists such as Toshikata and Utamaro (often focusing their work on everyday people) carried on Chinese techniques, illustrating frolicking gestures, as well as children with turned heads to hint at their constant motion and excitability.
Popular Asian philosophies contributed to the Japanese artist's ease in producing childish temperaments in their art. Unlike in Christianity, Buddhist ideology (the dominant mindset of the region) was based on the idea that life is suffering. In fact, ukiyo-e (founded from Buddhist concepts) was originally intended to depict sad life events. Thus, Eastern artists and audiences alike felt less of an urge to conceal natural behaviors with overt romanticism.
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