Family portraiture exploded in popularity in Georgian Britain, as a developing middle class found the means to join the upper classes in recording themselves in paint, pen, or pencil. The middle classes took the lead in rethinking the family structure and parents' relationship to their children-and how such issues could be represented in art. As a result, the child's place within the family and within the family portrait shifted dramatically. From stiffly ordered, hierarchical images such as Arthur Devis's The John Bacon Family (1742-43) to more animated and varied representations of children with their parents later in the century, artists themselves actually challenged the family structure. The greatest shift here focused on the father's place within the family, and his historical role as the economic provider and disciplinarian. Although fathers were still represented with their children by artists of the Georgian period, they were most often seen in the act of educating their offspring. At the same time, artists began validating the separate world of children as children broke down the traditional hierarchies of power built on the father.
Mothers, however, came fully to the fore, their emotional bond with their children depicted in dramatic and original ways. The possibility of parental indulgence took form for the first time, as even the most aristocratic women discovered the joys of at least posing as good mothers.
The John Bacon Family
Oil on canvas
30 x 51 5/8 in. (76.6 x 131.1 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Sir Joshua Reynolds
John Hamilton Mortimer