In the late twentieth century we tend to assume innocence to be an attribute of childhood. But inhabitants of Georgian Britain, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, discussed the basic nature of children with great intensity. Starting from views of the child as a creature of innate evil (a doctrine inherited from Calvin), philosophers of the period increasingly saw the child as an innocent creature-innocent, at least, until corrupted by society. Beginning with the writings of the English philosopher John Locke around 1700 through the publication of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influential writings on childhood in the 1760s, a great philosophical shift took place. By the end of the period, the child became allied with the natural world, and childhood, a period of improbably extreme innocence.
Visual representations of the child reflect these changing views. Artists increasingly depicted children outdoors, often close to animals and the larger natural world. Moving from artificiality to action, from stereotype to individuality, artists portrayed increasingly real-looking children. Sir Joshua Reynolds's Master Hare (1788) exerts a powerful presence in a landscape setting, in command of the world around him, embodying the new idea of the child.
The Bateson Family
Oil on canvas
64 7/16 x 104 in. (163.7 x 264 cm)
Ulster Museum, Belfast
Arthur W. Devis