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by Martha Marleau
Visual and Sound Archives
Childhood is defined as the state of being a child; from birth to puberty. From an adult's perspective, this magical time of innocence and naïvety is also a time to mature and assume responsibility. From a child's perspective, it is a time of happy carefree play, for exploration and learning, but is also a time to cope with authority, dependence, fear and vulnerability. The major milestones in a child's life from birth onwards often relate to attainment of levels of maturity through the experience of "first" events such as first steps, first religious rites, first school days, first jobs, first dates and first prized possessions such as new bicycles. The National Archives' art collection includes enchanting and personal images in various media including oils, painted photographs, watercolours, miniatures, silhouettes, drawings and prints. Subjects are single or group portraits and children engaged in family activities. Several recently acquired collections contain both children's drawings and works that make us reminisce about the "good old days."
Early artworks reflect what European explorers encountered in North America. Documenting childhood was sometimes an element of a general romantic interest in the exotic, found in the artifacts, costumes and habitat of cultures foreign to the European world. Illustrations of Aboriginal and Inuit family groups of mothers and children depicted in native costume and outdoor settings suggest how children were cared for. Portrait artist Angelica Kauffmann painted "Woman in Eskimo Clothing from Labrador" (figure 1) sometime between 1768 and 1772 when living in London, England. The painting was produced to satisfy the need to visually document the inhabitants of newly discovered lands. The artist did not observe the Inuit first-hand, and it is believed that a European model likely posed in authentic costume available to her patrons in London. There are indisputably accurate costume details in this printing as well as the use of some artistic licence. For example, a baby peeps out from the top of a long wide boot on the right leg of the woman. It is known that the custom of carrying the baby in the boot was noted by early explorers, and engravings document this practice, however, the practice is still questioned and no specimen of the boot has been preserved. The woman wears the wide-cut "mother's parka" known as the amautik, in which the baby was carried. The painting suggests how Inuit mothers travelled on foot with their offspring.