1670.  Attributed to the Freake-Gibbs Painter.  THE MASON CHILDREN: DAVID, JOANNA, AND ABIGAIL.  Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 42 3/4 in.

This is the oldest painting in the collection of American art at the de Young Museum; it was painted in 1670, just fifty years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on the coast of Massachusetts. Paintings from the early decades of New England settlement are very rare and only about thirty-five dating before 1700 survive. This painting depicts three children of Arthur Mason (a wealthy Boston baker) and his wife, Joanna Mason.

This portrait can offer us a firsthand glimpse into the lives of the Mason children and children in general during the early colonial period. The children look far older than their years, but we know their exact ages which are inscribed next to their heads. David in particular seems tall and unusually proportioned for an eight-year old, but all of the children have a stiff, erect bearing that modern viewers do not associate with childhood.

North American Puritans were deeply concerned about children because they considered young people as repositories of the most basic human instincts; they believed that children might be wild or immoral if not disciplined by strict religious and cultural rules. The Puritans assigned as many adult duties as possible to children, and filled the children's remaining time with religious and educational activities. This view of children was a slightly extreme version of the general perception of childhood in European culture during this same period. The idea of childhood as a time apart from adult problems and interests did not develop until the mid-eighteenth century. Until then, childhood was not considered a distinct time in life separate from adulthood, and for this reason, children began to dress as adults as soon as they were six years of age.

Children's Clothing in the 17th Century

The clothing the Mason children wear is based on typical clothing of the period but shows flourishes of extravagance associated with wealth in seventeenth century America. The abundance of laces and ribbons on the clothing of all three children would have been seen as a mark of privileged social status. Massachusetts law stated that only the very wealthy could display extravagant clothing; sleeve slashes, such as those seen in this painting, could only be worn by members of households whose income exceeded 200 pounds per year.

Yet even the well-to-do, influenced by the predominantly Puritan and Quaker ethics of the time, often frowned upon overly fancy clothes as vain and impious. It was more common for wealthy people to wear simple clothes made of expensive fabric. One could argue that what the artist was depicting in this portrait was not the appearance of the Mason children at a specific moment in time, but the Mason children as their parents wanted them to be perceived: mature, well-provided-for, and important. The glimpse into the lives of the children portrayed in this picture belies the stereotype of Puritan childhood as dark and deprived. Not all of the residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were as prosperous as the Masons seem to have been, but the high regard for their children that the Masons demonstrated by commissioning this picture was probably not unusual.

Source, picture and text:


Unidentified artist, about 1671.  Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary.

Note stiff posture of baby and detailing of ornate costumes (this is almost a painting of clothes).
detail, Mason Children portrait. the prop in the child's hand (an apple) and the round collar of the pinafore identifies her as female.

1670.  Artist Unknown.  Portrait of Henry Gibbs.  oil on canvas.


Henry Gibbs, 1-1/2 yrs old, dressed the same as Alice Mason (above) in every detail -- petticoats, pinafore, bonnet, coral jewelry -- all considered "feminine" props.  One exception:  the dress's collar.  By the square collar or "falling band" 17th-century viewers would have correctly identified this child as male.