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The Family In Art
By artist Victoria Chick
When asked to do an article on “The Family in Art”, I first thought of many historical paintings depicting families. From my art history classes, I remembered certain families where many members were artists and demonstrated great skill, creativity, and craftsmanship. This recollection led me to do research where I found additional examples of families of visual artists. So, I will write here generally about how and why the family has been a subject and in a future article tell you about some fascinating families of artists.
A survey of paintings depicting families throughout history shows a sharp contrast between two compositional arrangements and two ways the family is presented to the viewer. The composition may be equally balanced, also called formal, with the figures looking toward the viewer. It is an arrangement that sometimes results in an interpretation that sees the family as remote, even cold. An informal composition is still balanced but not necessarily with the same number of figures on one side as on the other. It often lets the viewer see interaction between family members. The figures are often depicted within a home environment, resulting in an intimate view, and a feeling of warmth. Paintings that were meant to be shown to the public tend to be formal while paintings meant to be enjoyed within the home most often are informal. The compositional types are true no matter in what century the art was completed.
So much of early art subjects concerned rulers of empires who were seldom seen with their families. This was likely because of ancient attitudes that viewed women and children as property. The Egyptian Pharaohs are sometimes portrayed with their family members. In public painted sculpture, the arrangement was equally balanced or formal. Children, even if they were teenagers, were often shown as doll sized in hierarchic perspective to indicate their being of lesser importance than the parents. However, in private tomb paintings, the family was more likely to be represented informally and all the family members normal sized.
Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio and received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com
Before the 17th century only wealthy people could afford paintings and the wealthy
tended to be aristocrats. There were not a lot of paintings where all family members
were shown. Instead, separate portraits of the mother or father were common. An
extremely interesting and unusual informal composition by the Spanish painter Velasquez
called Las Meninas ostensibly shows the Spanish princess with her maids-
In considering paintings of non-
The 17th century in Holland brought political and religious change resulting in a growing and prosperous middle class who could afford art. The family was important to the Dutch and interiors of homes, with their residents occupied in domestic activity, were painted by numerous artists. Formal family groups were also still a common subject. There was also the beginning of a shift in the arrangement of figures that shows the husband and wife as equal partners in the raising of children.
Logically, family paintings done in America during colonial times were influenced both by the British formal compositions and the informal Dutch interior family pictures since immigrants to the colonies were largely from those national backgrounds. The quality of the painting, however, was more primitive since few colonial painters had much training.
Another period where families were subjects occurred in France with the Impressionist painters of the late19th century. Mary Cassatt, an American painter in France during this time, was noted for her family and mother/child paintings and pastels. Both Monet and Manet did paintings of their families, and Renoir included his family members in many of his paintings. All the Impressionist paintings were informal scenes.
In England, during the same time, the Pre-
Photography also strongly figures in the way families have been represented. It
was and is a medium of democracy because almost anyone can learn to take a picture.
In the infancy of photography during the late 19th century, poses were formal, many
times taken to record a family event such as a funeral or wedding. The slow shutter
speed required the sitters to be still for seconds. As cameras improved, informal
shots have become possible, and action is easily recorded. Even with advanced technology,
if a family wants a group photo to send their friends, they will probably arrange
themselves formally, in an equally balanced way, all looking toward the camera.
From ancient history to the present time, visual representation of the family has largely retained its public or private intention.