The Age of Innocence

When I was growing up, a beautiful framed reproduction of The Age of Innocence hung above my bed. Even as a young child, I was awed by this painting. I would gaze at it in wonder, wholly captivated by the artist’s skill. At the time, I had no idea who the artist was. I only knew that I loved the painting — and that the little girl pictured appeared to have too many toes on one foot.

Age of Innocence

Of course, I noticed, too, the cracking of the paint — faithfully reproduced in the copy. It gave the picture a very old-fashioned look. At the time, though, I had no idea why the paint had cracked this way.

Even though my family wasn’t artistic, I was introduced to many famous paintings as a child. The Age of Innocence is probably my favorite, and that’s probably because it was part of my very earliest memories. Other paintings came later, but none could ever truly replace this pensive little girl.

Or so I say. The sad truth is that over time, I actually forgot about this painting. It was only yesterday as my husband and I browsed through an antique shop that I came face to face with this little girl again. Oh, how I loved seeing her! I should have bought the painting — maybe I’ll go back today. I’m just not sure where I would hang it. We’re in the process of framing many of my oil paintings, and our walls are filling up fast.

If I loved this painting as a child, I am even more enamored of it now. As an artist learning oil painting, I marvel again at the skill displayed in this work. Once we returned home, I wanted to learn all I could about The Age of Innocence, and what I learned turned out to be one of those Aha! moments. Let me share a little information about The Age of Innocence.

First, it wasn’t always called The Age of Innocence. When the painting was completed and first exhibited, it was most likely titled simply A Little Girl.  Like me, people were enchanted by the painting, and soon it was being reproduced by various means. According to information from the British museum, at least 300 full-scale replicas in oil were made by students and professional art copyists between 1856 and 1893. Earlier, in 1794 — after the death of the original artist — Joseph Grozer made a stipple engraving of the work and gave it the title by which we’ve come to know the painting.

The original painting was completed sometime between 1785 and 1788. The artist was Sir Joshua Reynolds, and here is where I did quite a double-take. I’ve been reading about Joshua Reynolds, you see. After studying a bit about the Royal Academy of Art.  I learned that Joshua Reynolds was one of the prominent artists involved in the founding of the Academy. He served as president of the Academy for many years. I had already downloaded Seven Discourses in Art — a collection of the annual addresses he delivered to the Royal Academy, and only the previous day I had also downloaded Reynolds by S. L. Besusan, eager to learn much more about this man and his art.

I’ve learned a lot more now, too, about The Age of Innocence, or more accurately, A Little Girl. The Tate Museum, where the painting is on display, suggests that the painting was most likely done in 1785.

On 8 April 1785 The Morning Herald, previewing Reynolds’s proposed exhibits for the forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition noted: ‘An Infant Girl, disposed on a grass plat in an easy attitude.’

The picture was called a fancy painting — not a commissioned portrait, but one by an artist intended to show pleasant scenes, usually of children.

Earlier, Reynolds had painted another fancy painting, one of a strawberry girl. I love history in all forms, and I was fascinated to read about strawberry girls. From the Historical Portrait library, I learned:

Strawberry girls were a common sight in eighteenth century London, as girls from poor families attempted to make money selling the fruit on street corners and ‘Strawberry Gardens’.

Reynolds considered this painting to be one of his very best works and made several copies of it. One copy is now housed in the Wallace Collection.

Strawberry Girl
Strawberry Girl by Joshua Reynolds

But what does this have to do with The Age of Innocence? Well, here’s where the story becomes very interesting. Strawberry Girl was first exhibited in 1773 and was very well-received. Sadly, though, the painting techniques used by Reynolds were defective in many ways, and the Strawberry Girl suffered major paint losses in places. Reynolds then painted over the canvas, creating a new image. The hands of Strawberry Girl remained and became the hands of another little girl, the one we know from The Age of Innocence. 

As I’ve researched Reynolds and his work, I’ve come across many references to his techniques. Some of his paintings have faded badly because of the pigments he used, especially in flesh tones. His use of bitumen may be responsible for much of the cracking seen in his paintings, as was his failure to allow his underpainting to dry completely. Because of this, his pigments did not properly adhere to the surface. Blistering resulted as the bitumen dried and lifted away from the canvas.

Although I’ve learned a lot about Joshua Reynolds and The Age of Innocence, one thing still remains a mystery. Who is this little girl? Some believe she was the artist’s great-niece, Theophila Gwadkin. Others have suggested she was Anne Spencer, a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, painted earlier in The Marlborough Family.

Family Reynolds
The Marlborough Family by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Personally, I don’t care who she was. She has become “the face of childhood” for many of us. And now, I have to get ready to go out. That little girl is waiting for me at the antique shop. I must bring her home.

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