I live near the Huntington’s lovely art collection and have seen “The Blue Boy” there many times. Last time, though, a docent mentioned that Gainsborough painted it shortly after his dearest friend died. The subject is the late friend’s son, who had just become the man of the family. Knowing that helped me to appreciate the firm stance and mature dress, the confidence in the boy’s face. Gainsborough painted this boy as a man, and a successful one at that.
Another of my favorite paintings hangs in a stairwell on the other side of the country. Abbott Handerson Thayer (how could he not be an artist with a name like that?) painted it shortly after his wife died. His three children appear in the painting, but clearly the primary subject is the oldest daughter, who had been caring for her younger siblings. She’s modeled after “Winged Victory” and her face has a solemn assurance. He painted her tall, capable, caring.
I often ponder how to give children identity. I suppose that if you’re the next Gainsborough, one way would be to paint your daughter or son taller, stronger, braver than she or he currently is. But how do the non-artists among paint for the children in our lives a picture they can grow into, one that anticipates their maturity? How do we show them a picture of the people they may become?