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A Portrait Of Fatherly Affection

Paintings of "father and child" are much less usual, in art history, than paintings of "mother and child."

One reason is the long devotion of art to the Christian theme of madonna and child. Even when artists started depicting merely secular subjects, the mother-and-child theme still hid something sacred under its skin. Maternal love was seen at best as divine, at worst as sentimental. Either way, it was a domestic fact. But where was the father of the family?

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Fathers were expected to be shown as somewhat remote authority figures. But, particularly in 17th-century Holland, artists started making more informal - and truer - representations of tenderness between fathers and their children. Perhaps it was portraiture that became more intimate, rather than fathers; records suggest that fathers had often been affectionate with their children. But this was not for posterity to see.

This picture by the 18th-century English portraitist William Hoare seems caught between formality and informality. It is a public portrait, but with vivid domestic undertones. Indeed, it virtually illustrates - with humor and charm - a domestic paternal dilemma. The father, Christopher Anstey, an author, stops with his plume poised over his interrupted writing and turns toward someone he, but not we, can see. Simultaneously, he refuses to be distracted by his bright-eyed, puppy-like daughter vying for him to see, or play with, her (extremely fashionable) doll. How long can he hold out?

Anstey was the author in 1766 of a popular poetic work satirizing the fashionable life of Bath, "The New Bath Guide." Hoare was a successful portrait painter long resident in Bath. Although much overlooked after his death, his talents were once again recognized in a 1991 exhibition at Bath's Victoria Art Gallery. This painting, which had been bequeathed to London's National Portrait Gallery in 1940, was a significant part of that show.

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