Babies in Art

Mar 28, 2021

We have a new baby in our family! So I started thinking about how our growing family like to take pictures of the children and their antics. When our extended family is together, there are lots of photos and I was reflecting on what it is about babies and infants that we find so appealing. There’s something about a baby that can make us smile, make us feel good, give us a warm fuzzy feeling… For me, that’s probably my maternal instincts kicking in but I’m thinking of baby animals too.

A big part of the attraction to babies is the eyes - not so much with the new born baby, but when they become focused and alert the eyes are our way of communicating. We observe and learn through watching emotions in the expressions of those around us. The eyes are our focus.

‘Puppy dog eyes’ is a well-known phenomenon - a movement of the inner eyebrow that makes the eyes look bigger, like a baby’s eyes. It’s not just dogs that do this; people do it when they are sad. It draws on our heart strings and brings out the carer in us.

Paintings of babies

Before photography, images were captured in drawings and paintings. Many of the early paintings of babies or young children, back in the Middle Ages or Medieval times before the 15th century, portrayed them as a mini adult. In those days, children were expected to behave like adults and this is one of the reasons that paintings from that era depicted babies as miniature men. Often they were not appealing and definitely weird looking!

The renaissance period followed and gradually during this time paintings of children started to soften and take on more realistic characteristics. This was due to the fact that children started to be seen as individuals, not under-developed copies of adults. Michelangelo painted angels as chubby children, appearing to keep their baby fat. So the style was changing.

An artist who did excel at creating chubby-cheeked babies that appeared realistic was Mary Cassatt, an Impressionist from the late 19th century. Her paintings used more natural dimensions and proportions for the features of the babies. Gari Melchers also created artworks about the same time with babies that were cute and appealing. However, the settings used by these two artists could be in stark contrast to each other: Cassatt with light, happy colours showing a loving mother; Melcher sometimes using dark, sad colours and depicting the difficult life of peasant people.

The early paintings of babies were commissioned by the wealthier people. Portraits of children were also restricted to the richer, upper classes: quite often royal families. A search for ‘baby’ of the National Gallery of Australia produces an interesting array of drawings and paintings. Looking at the artist and the year, shows that in more recent times, babies appear increasingly lifelike. Looking at some sketches in the gallery, you can see features that are unique to babies. There are techniques used to help the viewer appreciate how young the infant character might be. The National Galleries Scotland also has a fascinating section on Children in Art.

Drawing babies

If you consider the shape and proportion of a baby’s eyes and face, compared with an adult, you realise that there’s a difference. In a baby’s face, the line of the eyes is actually below half way. They appear large and are set in plump, rounded features.

Guiding kids when they draw or paint, to consider the relative position of the eyes, will help define the general age of the person. Eyes in an older person appear higher and faces are longer. These changes in proportions also relate to the whole body with the length of the torso, arms and legs increasing relative to the size of the head as the person ages.

For some specific lessons in Artventure, try searching for ‘baby’, ‘people’ or ‘eyes’. With any lesson that involves a person there are clear directions on where to place the eyes in the face and also how to add other features that help determine their age. There is also a blog that talks about ‘Why we think something is beautiful’.

‘The eyes have it’ (aka ‘ayes’)

In any artwork that depicts a person, it can be the eyes that make all the difference. If they are relatively large then the feeling is that this person is more child-like and possibly more appealing. The eyes also show how the person is feeling: sad, angry, happy, concerned, surprised… It’s all in the eyes. Knowing how to draw these adds greatly to the visual impact and appeal of an artwork.

The eyes of the children in my family are the key to their moods: their joys, their sadness, their fears. The big baby eyes just make your heart melt! Capturing these moments, either in photos or drawings, means we can keep these memories forever.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger