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Portrait of a Child with a Coral
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This portrait by an unknown painter shows a child in an interior holding a piece of red coral mounted in silver. The child faces us like a small adult trapped in starchy clothes. He or she is also wearing red coral beads and is holding a white, lily-like flower. Both the artist and the subject are unknown and it is even difficult to determine the gender of the child, as young girls and boys wore skirts at this time.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is the flatness of the painting. Despite the patterned black and white floor, typical of domestic interiors in the Netherlands in this period, there is little sense of perspective, due to the flat black background. He or she seems almost to be in a stage setting, and the pose is as formal as that of an actor.

Despite its formality and ‘staged’ feel, the portrait is highly decorative and full of pattern and texture. There are checks, stripes, zigzags and dots used to create links across the painting's surface. The black and white pattern of the tiled floor mirrors the folds in the child’s apron, while ornate lacework appears on the child’s apron, cuffs, ruff and headgear and is picked out in gold on the black drapery framing the child. The colour palette is very limited yet satisfying, with the artist using black and white and shades of red and gold throughout.

The child appears to be dressed in reasonably fine clothes and is very self-consciously holding a piece of coral mounted in silver and a white lily-like flower, which suggests they may be symbols which we are required to read in a particular way. Generally in Dutch painting of the period there is a profound symbolism at work, which gives the image multiple layers of meaning. In the most famous flower paintings, for example, blooms in various states of growth and decay are used to examine the theme of life and death. It is often difficult, though, to read these symbols so many years after the painting has been created as they may not have the same significance to us as they would have had to people at the time.

The Romans used to hang red coral beads around children’s necks to protect them from illness and misfortune. The fragility of childhood in the period, when many children would not survive into adulthood, could therefore be one of the themes of this portrait. Coral was also reputedly used as dummies, which may explain the presence of the piece mounted in a silver holder. If you look carefully at the silver-mounted coral, there are bells on it, like a rattle – this indicates to some degree the age of the child.

How old does the child look? How old do you think the child is, considering it has a rattle and a dummy?
The white lily often appears in western art and is the symbol of innocence and purity and is greatly associated with the Virgin Mary. If the flower in this painting is indeed a white lily, it may imply that this child is female.
Unknown  Portrait of a Child with a Coral  1636
Materials and technique: Oil on panel
Dimensions: 89.4 x 68.4 cm
The Bowes Museum: B.M.573
Setting and Symbolism
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