||It’s summertime. A young boy looks at us with a broad smile. The sun shines in bright white dots through the braid of his straw hat. In his right hand he holds a coin on which the effigy of King William III can be seen. The boy proudly shows us the coin; he certainly is the owner of it.
The vision of the child as we have it today, namely of the child who can be a child and who must be able to use his childhood to play and learn, arose in the Netherlands in the course of the 19th century. Before that, a child was still regarded as a miniature adult.
In his article ‘Jong in de 19e eeuw. Het kind in de Nederlandse kunst van 1780 tot 1914’ (Young in the 19th century. The child in Dutch art from 1780 to 1914) Michiel Plomp shows us how the Dutch 19th century child's portrait reflects this change. Until about 1800, we usually see children depicted in the stiff, formal clothing that the adults used to wear. That changes in the 19the century, when special children's clothing is created. By then we see children more often depicted like this boy: in loose clothing, in which they could move easily.
The new vision of the child also included the notion that a child should not be allowed to work, but should be able to go to school to learn. The bourgeoisie, who could afford to have their children portrayed, also sent them to school. At the end of the school year, these children often received some pocket money as a reward for their school achievements, because that pedagogical insight was also developed in the 19th century: you learn more from rewarding than from punishment.
This portrait is typical of the new 19th century vision of the child: the child is rewarded for his school achievements, plays outside in summertime and is carefree. That this was not the case for every child, is told by another painting by Henri Goovaerts from about the same time: ‘Poor boy looking up’ (1886).
We do not know who the boy with the coin is. The current owner, a descendant of Carl Ruland, who was the mayor of Vaals (Limburg, the Netherlands) from 1866 to 1903, only knows that this portrait has been in the family for as long as he can remember. In the 1980s, his parents had their interior, which by then was full of old paintings and antique furniture, completely redesigned by Max van Beers, a Dutch interior architect inspired by modernism. The Ruland family knew for sure that ‘the youth’, as they referred to the portrait, would be the first Van Beers would want to get rid of. But things turned out differently: all old art and antiques had to give way and only ‘the youth’ was allowed to stay. Van Beers insisted to include this portrait as the one and only reference to the past in the new interior, which would be dominated by furniture of Le Corbusier and Eames. Van Beers reframed the portrait, replacing the golden Rococo frame with a simple wooden frame. In his designs he indicated very precisely where the portrait should hang: next to a cabinet by Marcel Breuer.
(ref: Michiel Plomp, ‘Jong in de 19e eeuw. Het kind in de Nederlandse kunst van 1780 tot 1914’ in: Arianne Baggerman, Rudolf Dekker, Michiel Plomp, Jong in de 19e eeuw. Het kind in de Nederlandse 19e-eeuwse kunst, Haarlem 2019)