Derived from the tradition of moralizing prints, the subject of a child building a house of cards became a popular motif during the eighteenth century. This etching is based on a 1735 painting by Chardin, one of the most celebrated treatments of the theme. In the print, Filloeul faithfully reproduces Chardin’s composition, expressing the ephemeral nature of human endeavors through the image of a boy engrossed in the construction of an object doomed to destruction. In the caption, Filloeul reconnects Chardin’s image with the moralizing tradition by suggesting that adults still act like children by building foolish projects.
During the Rococo period, French artists frequently depicted children, sometimes at play and spontaneous in their gestures and expressions, but also engaged in study, their education the foundation for the future of society. In 1766, Saint-Aubin, draughtsman and chronicler of Parisian cultural life, drew a portrait of his niece and nephew in profile. Based on preparatory studies made after life, this finished drawing presents them as well-educated and well-behaved children, with the restraint and self-confidence of adults. Rose, seated at right, holds a hurdy-gurdy, a musical instrument popular in the eighteenth century.
Working with great rapidity and in a loose manner, Robert used his favorite drawing material, red chalk, to produce this scene of an artist seated on a rock, sketching a posed model. By presenting the figures in an undefined space against a blank background, he focuses the spectator’s attention on the young girl who displays exemplary behavior, obedient and modest under the attentive gaze of her governess. The motif of the artist sketching outdoors was also used by Robert to add interest to his depictions of ruins and urban views.
Published in 1762, the treatise Emile, or On Education by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) transformed educational theory and shaped a new image of childhood, defined by innocence and virtue, that was quickly taken up by artists such as the sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, the portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, and the genre painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Further inspired by the philosopher Denis Diderot, who also believed that education should be an important tool to moralize society, Greuze depicted several scenes featuring the instruction of young children. In addition, he devoted numerous sheets to the study of facial expression; here, the raised head and uplifted eyes embody the young girl’s feelings of hope.
François André Vincent was a successful portraitist and history painter at the end of the eighteenth century. However, during his fellowship at the French Academy in Rome between 1771 and 1775, Vincent also made a great number of caricatures. Here, Mansueto, the young servant of the painter Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier—who owned the drawing—is the subject of Vincent’s wit. By showing the boy from the back, standing with his hands on his hips, the artist captures his determination and vigor. Whereas the offspring of
wealthy families were typically well-educated and took part in a variety of pleasant pursuits, the life of a child born to the working classes was quite different. It was not until 1874 that child labor laws were enacted in France to protect children under twelve years old.