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Chasing Butterflies: Capturing the Transience of Childhood

Throughout history we have attempted to capture the transience of childhood in images, whether through portraits painted in the eighteenth century or photos taken on a phone and shared on social media today.

In this short talk Emily Knight takes us back to the eighteenth century, when artists including Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Fuseli and George Romney were painting children’s portraits.

Ideas of childhood had begun to shift in the era, which was reflected in the portraiture. At the time infant mortality rates were high, meaning parents felt an even greater desire to have an image of their child to capture those fleeting early moments. Emily shows how these ideas were reflected in the portraiture through recurring motifs like the butterfly.

Emily Knight is a DPhil candidate in History of Art at the University of Oxford researching posthumous portraiture in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries in Britain, considering the ways in which these works became a language for mourning and commemoration.