Children have appeared in artworks as long as humans have made art. They’ve been depicted as treasured possessions, figures of wonder, and symbols of the future. Sometimes, they’re simply allowed to be kids.
A double folk portrait of sisters Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Brackett of Newton, Mass., painted between the 1830s and 1840s. The artist is unknown, but the Bracketts clearly got a bargain. Though they wear identical pink dresses, the girls are clearly individuals with their own personalities. Skinner offered the portrait in March 2017 and sold it for almost $10,000.
Three School Girls, a 1940s oil on board by South African artist Gerard Sekoto. Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams, explains that Sekoto might have sketched the scene surreptitiously and painted it later: “He would carry notepaper in his pockets. The people he saw were not accustomed to people making their portraits, so he would pull out a piece of scrap paper, sketch quickly, and come to his studio with his pockets full of ideas.”
Boy & Girl, from Ruud van Empel’s World series. The Dutch visual artist relies almost entirely on computer programs to produce his works, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. “It is completely fictional,” says Genevieve Janvrin, co-head of photographs for Phillips Europe, of Boy & Girl. “The children don’t exist. The forest doesn’t exist. It’s all in his head. For every one child you see, he’ll photograph five. He takes photos of leaves, Dutch foliage, and will move the leaves around. It literally takes him months to create each work, The Photoshop tool is his paintbrush. It’s almost like a puzzle, putting pieces together in a different way that confuses you and seduces you at the same time.”
Ernest Biéler’s Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois (Three Young Girls of Granois) has a documentary aspect to it. “The three girls have different dresses, but their faces are slightly the same. For him, it was more important to depict Swiss traditions rather than the people themselves,” says Stéphanie Schleining Deschanel, director and co-head of Swiss art for Sotheby’s. “They’re real people, from his direct environment, but he had no models. He found inspiration in observing people.”
The story of the rediscovery of Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko’s early 1960s painting Children on Cycles is as remarkable as the semi-abstract forms of the painting itself. The work had been stashed under a bed in Boston for five decades before it was brought to the attention of a Bonhams representative. The auction house sold the painting in May 2019 for $225,075 and a new world auction record for the artist.
Morton Bartlett might be the most intriguing of America’s outsider artists. Adopted as an orphan, he grew up to create several startlingly lifelike figures of children so he could photograph them. The unassembled figures, each piece carefully wrapped in early 1960s newspapers, were discovered upon his death. Dealer Marion Harris purchased the 60 boxes’ worth of material and reassembled it over several years. Daydreaming Girl, pictured above, was among the last Morton Bartlett figures that she completed. Harris believes Bartlett kept them “because they were so beautiful, and they were part of the process. They were a means to an end. I’m quite comfortable in saying the photos are his reality, the end product. For 30 years, they were all in boxes. He didn’t need them any more–they had served their purpose. But it was 30 years of work. It was too special to throw away.”
Self-taught African American artist Sam Doyle rendered Penn Drummer Boy in house paint on a piece of discarded roofing material. He probably displayed it in the outdoor gallery he kept at his home on Saint Helena Island in South Carolina. “His paintings reported what went on in his community. He painted people he knew,” says Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art in Buford, Georgia. “No one else was documenting what was going on in his community except for him. He would record people of importance, such as the first black butcher. You get a lot of history in his paintings, but you don’t necessarily realize it.”
Young sitters appear infrequently in the work of American folk artist Ammi Phillips, but they represent the best of his work. Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog, painted between 1830 and 1835, sold at Christie’s in January 2019 for $1.7 million and a new world auction record for the artist. “A lot of Phillips works are dour. Some of his sitters are ministers and older people with bibles in their laps. With children, he captures the spirit of young America,” says John Hays, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas. “That’s where he hits the home run, and that’s why there’s a huge price difference with the artist. Depicting a child evokes much more.”
Special thanks to the following for allowing re-use of their images for this story:
Phillips, for Ruud van Empel’s Boy & Girl.
Bonhams, for Gerard Sekoto’s Three School Girls and Demas Nwoko’s Children on Cycles.
Skinner, for the double folk portrait of the Brackett sisters.
Sotheby’s, for Ernest Biéler’s Trois Jeunes Filles de Granois (Three Young Girls of Granois).
Slotin Folk Art Auction, for Sam Doyle’s Penn Drummer Boy.
Rago, for the Morton Bartlett figure Daydreaming Girl.
Christie’s, for Ammi Phillips’s Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog.
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