Whilst in Madrid I had the opportunity to visit the recently opened special display La Infancia Descubierta (Childhood Unveiled) at Museo Nacional del Prado. With this exquisite display, el Prado recalls the importance of the children portrait genre in the nineteenth century by focusing on two key locations during Romanticism: Madrid and Seville.
The recent purchase by the Prado Museum of an almost unknown canvas by Antonio Maria Esquivel and Suárez de Urbina (1806-1857) that portrays a pair of brothers might be one of the reasons for the organisation of this exhibition. This would be the first time the piece is presented to the public. Javier Baron, Chief Curator of 19th-century painting at the museum, has used the painting as a centrepiece to articulate a small sample of eight works dated 1842 to 1855. Collected from Madrid and Seville and dated to the reign of Isabel II, each child portrait is now part of the museum’s collection. From the eight pieces exhibited, only one, the portrait of Federico Florez and Márquez by Federico de Madrazo and Kuntz (1815-1894) – a great representative of the court’s painters – is part of the permanent display; the other seven canvases are usually kept in storage, so this exhibition is the perfect opportunity to see them in person.
These portraits, commissioned by middle-class, aristocrat and bourgeois clients, reveal different interpretations of childhood, a theme that became particularly popular among Romantic painters as a reflection of their clients’ new interests.
Baron explains that child portraiture emerged in Spanish painting at the end of the 18th-century and further developed in the 19th. It did so in relation to the ideals that emerged with the Enlightenment, particularly childhood purity espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This idea stated that children had their own interests and autonomy, rather than childhood being simply a stage that led to adulthood. The virtues associated with childhood – spontaneity, grace, innocence, purity versus the negative aspects of civilization – were highly valued. We can see them reflected in details such as the outdoor settings of the paintings.
Through this display, we have a glimpse at children’s fashions in Spain during the reign of Isabel II. During this period, Spanish children’s fashion followed the canons of the French style. Mothers copied models from figurines seen in Paris, and girls wore miniature versions of their mothers’ attire: long dresses on top of several layers of petticoats, to give the desired shape to their skirts. It was very common that mothers ordered small crinolines for their daughters so they would lighten the weight of so many petticoats.
Younger girls wore shorter skirts, revealing their white cotton undergarments that were trimmed with delicate lace or English embroidery. At the age of six girls would begin to wear small corsets similar to adult models.
Kid leather ankle boots were the most common everyday footwear. For more formal occasions, boots usually had decorative satin embroidery to match the dress. In wintertime, outerwear included gloves and coats made of woven fabric for everyday fashion. Cotton velvet and fur were used to make ensembles for special occasions, accompanied by lined hoods for girls and hats and caps for boys. As we can appreciate from the selection of paintings, boys and girls wore the same fashions regardless of gender until approximately the age of five. As for the fabrics used, the most popular were velvet, taffeta, organdy and tarlatan.
Fashion for boys was more comfortable and functional than girl’s fashions. From the age of 6 – 7, boys would start to wear long trousers, and their outfits were very often jacket and trouser sets made of woven fabric in one colour; the addition of hats, badges and military inspired golden buttons created a more formal look.
Video commentary of exhibition by Javier Barón, Chief Curator of 19th-century Painting (Spanish with English subtitles)