The artist, forever in search of a muse, oft looks within and without, to no avail. If they are lucky, they may soon look back to a time in their own lives, when the world was a friendlier place, and the sun actually smiled every morning as it flew out from under the horizon. And therein finds the artist, a muse it has been longing and waiting for - the idea of childhood. The artist puts on its hat and takes a brisk walk, their eyes on a keen lookout for moments to frame, from the pristine era of a person’s life that is their childhood.
In this photo-article, you will find several depictions of childhood, with a special emphasis on the idea of play as being an important part of growing up and being a child. With toys, without toys, with friends, without friends, a child plays as it does eats and sleeps. Artists from different times and different places around the world, are found to be united in this photo-article, in that their interest has been, even if only for a little while, to immortalise a moment from a child’s life.
One Hundred Children at Play, 1100s–1200s. Tradition of Su Hanchen (Chinese, active c. 1101–1125), tradition of Wang Juzhen (Chinese). Album leaf; ink and colour on silk; image: 28.7 x 31.2 cm (11 5/16 x 12 5/16 in.); with mat: 33.3 x 40.5 cm (13 1/8 x 15 15/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1961.261
One Hundred Children at Play by Su Hanchen, is a 10th century Chinese painting that depicts several children, albeit many less than 100, engaging in different forms of play. The children in this painting appear to be spread out on a terrace, playing in small clusters. Several children can be seen role playing with a fake moustache and beard, while several others are depicted playing different musical instruments from reed pipes to percussions.
Children's Games. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1560. Oil on panel. 118 cm × 161 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Children's Games’, though from a different corner of the world (Belgium), is similar in composition to ‘One Hundred Children at Play’ by Su Hanchen. Several children, many more than one hundred, can be seen playing in an open space at the background of which is a receding row of houses. The 80  or so games depicted in this painting give its viewer a sort of encyclopaedic overview of the nature of children’s play at the time, while simultaneously prompting the viewer to make a closer inspection of each child’s nature of engagement. This wonderfully detailed painting offers its observer a treat, each time it is viewed!
Children Playing in the Snow under Plum Trees in Bloom (Secchū baisō gunji yūgi zu), 1887. Yōshū (Hashimoto) Chikanobu (Japanese, 1838–1912). Triptych of woodblock prints; ink and colour on paper; Image: 14 x 28 3/4 in. (35.6 x 73 cm)). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1959
The ‘Children Playing in the Snow under Plum Trees in Bloom’ by Japanese artist Yōshū Chikanobu, is in contrast to the two above, as it only depicts a handful of children playing in the snow towards the left side of the painting, while adults are seen to occupy the central right side of the frame. A lone child, presumably of Japanese royalty, can be seen watching the other children play from amongst the adults where he stands. This child is also clothed to look different in a black and orange suit. The bright, ruby red colour of the plum blossoms and the royal houses’ furnishing bring the painting alive against the whites, light blues and tones of beige used to otherwise render this picture.
A Pageant of Childhood, 1899. Thomas Cooper Gotch. Painting, oil on canvas; image: 142.7 cm x 244.3 cm. National Museums Liverpool, Purchased by the Walker Art gallery 1899
Differing from all of the aforementioned, in ‘A Pageant of Childhood’ by English painter and book illustrator, Thomas Cooper Gotch, children of different ages are depicted walking across the frame from left to right, as though in a musical procession. This seemingly innocent and merry picture however, turns sombre on second glance, as one notices the render of a figure of time, on the tapestry in the background, a solemn reminder that nothing, not even childhood, lasts forever.
1. Boys Flying Kites, 1952. Candido Portinari. Painting, gouache on paper; image: 14 cm x 15.5 cm. Projecto Portinari. 2. Children Playing, 1940. Candido Portinari. Painting, oil on canvas; image: 81cm x 100cm. Projecto Portinari. 3. Children’s Dance, 1932. Candido Portinari. Painting, oil on canvas; image: 39 cm x 47cm. Projecto Portinari. 4. Boys Playing, 1955. Candido Portinari. Painting, oil on Canvas; image 60 cm x 72.5 cm. Projecto Portinari. 5. Boys Playing Leapfrog, 1957. Candido Portinari. Painting, oil on wood; image: 53.5 cm x 64.5 cm. Project Portinari. 6. Boy with Top, 1947. Candido Portinari. Painting, oil on canvas; image: 65 cm x 54 cm. Projecto Portinari.
Finally, we arrive in the 20th century, at the advent of which, famous Brazilian painter, Candido Portinari is born. Portinari’s paintings are known for their candid depictions of life in Brazil, many of which feature children playing, as can be seen in the collage above. After spending a whole year in Paris as an adult, Portinari returned to Brazil, determined to spread amongst his own people an appreciation for Brazilian culture. Having painted more than 5000 canvases through his lifetime, Portinati’s work is unparalleled as a source of reference and documentation of life in Rio De Janeiro through much of the mid-1900s.