Of the many examples of English portraiture in Rienzi’s collection, a favorite is that of Rienzi’s youngest sitter, Esmé Stuart, 5th Duke of Lennox and 2nd Duke or Richmond—a grand title for a small boy of about 3 or 4 years old. The painting, attributed to Jan Weesop, a Flemish painter active in England around 1650, was the topic of a recent Gallery Talk in Rienzi's Ballroom.
Helga Aurisch, curator of European art at the MFAH, spoke on the work, noting how it is typical of those attributed to Weesop: softly painted hands with tapered fingers and the sharp-edged folds of the child’s clothing with its unusually rich color. Helga explained that the position of the child’s small hand atop the spaniel’s head was an invocation of Van Dyck, the famed painter of the age of Charles I. A well-known portrait of Charles, Prince of Wales, demonstrates the same pose suggesting an innate authority within the small sitter.
Most provocative, however, was the discussion of the child’s clothing. Little Esmé wears a long, white linen dress, with a bright orange overcoat edged in fine lace. His head is wrapped in a lace cap and black hat, to which a large ostrich plume has been fastened. As the material and lavish accessories suggest, this is a child of great privilege and wealth. To the untrained eye, the outfit might also suggest that the subject is a small girl; however, Esmé is in fact a boy “in coats.” Until the age of about 7, boys and girls wore the same clothing. All children wore long dresses until they reached an age of greater maturity, after which boys would “be breeched,” transferring to pants.
An article on Smithsonian.com—When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?—follows up on the issue of gendered clothing for children. Using a photograph of a 2½-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt wearing a dress from 1884 to illustrate the point, the author explains how children’s clothing has adjusted to different cultural conventions through the 20th century and what these changes might say about cultural identities.