Portraits of Children
Gentry parents in colonial Virginia readily assumed an obligation to educate their heirs and provide generous inheritances for them. If they did not, their children could sink into the mire of low society. As a consequence, family status could be lost; efforts to achieve gentility on a frontier would have been in vain. Given the difficulty of teaching refined behavior in a wilderness, instruction began early. Portraiture was a helpful device, providing models of adult decorum to be copied and, in the case of children’s paintings, informing sitters—by their own examples on canvas—of levels of gentility already achieved.
Conceptions regarding childhood were in transition in the eighteenth century both in England and the Virginia colony, where the free environment of the plantation further altered even the newest ideas. The seventeenth-century European perception of children as dangerous, evil animals (a viewpoint perpetuated in Puritan New England) had given way to a new appreciation of childhood as an enjoyable and important stage of development. In Virginia, the uncrowded plantation setting allowed a particularly permissive, optimistic approach to childrearing. That philosophy only hastened the change in Virginia after mid-century from an ideal of the family as patriarchal to an ideal of the family as an intimate and affectionate unit, one in which children were the emotional focus.