JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 668
I think that I can safely say that artwork by children does not make very many appearances in Western art prior to the 20th century. Nor do the originals--considering the ephemeral nature of the effort at art by children, their work just don't seem to survive. Some of that reason--particularly in America--was the scarcity of materials for kids to produce art with: paper was not inexpensive, and neither brushes and paints. Crayons, invented for chubby and reachy fingers, were not invented for the mass market until 1903. (Crayola sold eight crayons in a box for a nickel. The colors? Black, brown, blue, red, purple, orange, yellow, and green.) Then of course the artwork would have to be saved, somehow, for generations. As much as it would be fascinating to find artwork done at age 4 by your great-great grandparents, it would have to survive the cleansing tendencies of four generations of clean-up. End result: there's just not that much antiquarian chldrens' art floating around.
It also doesn't appear as art in artwork. It is possible to find numerous examples of kids' scratches in stone and such in ancient graffiti, but it doesn't appear as elements of fine artwork, or, for that matter, in book illustration.
There is an example however in Thomas Truman's The Nurse's Rhyme Book, a New Collection of Nursery Rhymes, published in Philadelphia in 1847. The book is filled with unusual illustrations and fantastic ornamental borders, all used in support of some odd, scary, mean and occasionally pretty mid-century posies meant as night-time entertainment for the young ones. Our prize is found on the very last page, the final slug of an illustration to a more-finely illustrated book: a coy, small boy, holding an example of his art, seemingly drawn on a framed slate. He looks happy, pleased, proud to me--on the one hand he is interested in sharing his achievement and on the other is really too shy to share, an emotion I've seen from time to time with my girls. As a matter of semi-fact, this is a rare emotion to see displayed in art, the too-shy-to-share routine saved more for fluttery self-conscious Victorian grown-ups more so than for children..
Believe me, after having dealt with books and prints as an antiquarian for almost 30 years, and also having a collection of sorts of antiquarian childrens' arts, pictures like this just don't surface very often at all. Over the years I've made some annoying phone calls and emails to librarians at art galleries (especially at the National Gallery in DC where I was a pester) explaining my interest and trying to find out if this struck any bit of memory in their brains--I never once had a positive answer. (I expected at some poin tthat someone would say, "Oh yes, of course--there's a census of that that Mr. Kemp of Yale did in 1977. Or something, some sort of memory for this kind of image.) This is hardly an academic pursuit, but my occasionally ritualistic clawing seems to bear out that these things are just not available.
And why this interest? There is a simple, inherent sweetness in all of this, full of life and hope; something that crosses the generations, looking pretty much as though the emotion in the art was produced yesterday, if not for some of the content. . And that is another charm--like giving a small child a camera to photograph what they see (as in the case of my daughters Emma and Tessie) and see the remarkable results of their 40-inch tall version of my adult world. The insights can be remarkable--not only do we see things from a new physical angle, but also the things of interest, the center of attention in the picture, the stuff that has aroused their interest and curiosity enough to take a picture of, can be incredible and totally unexpected. That is perhaps the greatest interest for me in looking at children's artwork: it has the continued potential to be slam-brake innovative and filled with the unexpected insight; and it is just not a"normal"view of the world. And in a way the art can hold a key to your own antique memory of childhood; every picture has a possibility for the recovery of your own forgotten insight.