Since antiquity, artists have sought to capture history's most important moments, from the grand historical events that shaped our world to the more commonplace milestones that shape our lives. Perhaps the most universally relatable and compelling of these themes are those related to the lives of children - and specifically their coming of age. Undoubtedly, the transitions from childhood to adolescence and adolescence to adulthood are among the most important times of our lives. Accordingly, they have been explored by artists across the centuries, from Michelangelo's heroic David to the spiritual awakening of Jules Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc.
With the school year coming to an inevitable end and students graduating around the world, it seemed appropriate to search our own rich collection for similar coming-of-age moments. The works that follow explore the intersection of youth and adulthood, innocence and experience, vulnerability and fortitude. In many ways, they remind us of our own youth and teenage awkwardness, a time full of bravado, exuberance and uncertainty. Above all, they do what art does best - appeal to a universal emotion inside us all.
The Education of Achilles by Auguste-Clément Chrétien
The legend of Achilles is one of the richest and oldest of Greek mythology. It was made famous by Homer in The Iliad, which helped to popularize the adventures of the great hero of the Trojan War. This composition by Auguste-Clément Chrétien captures the warrior as a youth with the centaur Chiron, the legendary tutor of gods and heroes who instructed him in the arts of medicine, music, riding and hunting.
Chrétien deftly depicts Achilles' coming of age in action - he is transitioning from boy to warrior before our eyes. Yet, Chrétien also brilliantly juxtaposes the emerging warrior with his wizened teacher. Beautifully composed, the two figures are depicted in perfect opposition: young versus old, man versus centaur, light versus dark. Indeed, Chrétien proves himself a master of Neoclassical proportion and symmetry, imbuing both figures with a strength and beauty all their own.
The Familiar Birds by Émile Friant
Émile Friant's The Familiar Birds not only represents the coming of age of a young woman, but also an entire era. At the time of this painting's creation in 1921, a woman's place in society was at a crossroads. The 1920s were an age of loosening social strictures, growing urban centers, and glamorous entertainment. The idealized notion of the liberated woman of the 20s, the "flapper," was just beginning to emerge. Those self-styled modern women who came of age during "The Jazz Age" enjoyed more freedom than ever before as society reshaped its understanding of womanhood.
One can see how Friant's subject can be read as an ode to the modern woman and a symbol of woman's liberation. She is depicted with a blasé urbanity and a playful gaze - and she is contemporary, independent, and unabashedly decadent in a way that appeals to the brazen confidence of every adolescent.
An Italian Beauty by Tito Conti
As also suggested by Friant's portrait, one's coming of age comes hand-in-hand with a sexual awakening. Tito Conti's rosy-cheeked young subject brilliantly suggests one such awakening, capturing in a single glance the crossroads between innocence and temptation. Bearing an expression of confidence and optimism, the sitter engages the viewer with a flirtatious backwards glance. Dressed in pure white, she embodies the notion of the tempting virgin. While the flowers in her hair and white gown are symbols of her innocence, her coy smile suggests the inevitability of its loss.
Antoñita va a los Toros by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly
Sir Gerald Festus Kelly's portrait of a young Andalusian is a quintessential coming-of-age portrait, bridging the line between girl and woman. Antoñita is bedecked in the traditional garb of the bullfight, which is subtly sensual in both its vibrant hues and the graceful draping of the lace mantilla around her face.
Yet, she possesses a girlish energy, as though she will bound out of her chair at any moment in her enthusiasm for the day's bullfights. And, if the youthful enthusiasm of Antoñita's expression were not enough to suggest her young age, the color of her exquisite lace mantilla would do the trick. Traditionally, black mantillas were worn by married or widowed women, while white veils were worn by young girls, or unmarried women. Not only does the color imply a virginal purity, but also evokes images of a young bride.
Boy Graduate by Norman Rockwell
What better way to end than with an image of a quintessential coming-of-age milestone - graduation. This illustration was composed by Norman Rockwell for the June 6, 1959, cover of the Saturday Evening Post, and it features the artist's own son, Tom, as its subject. Few artists were able to capture the nuances and emotions of adolescence half as well as Rockwell did throughout his career. Images of awkward boys struggling with their transition into manhood and teenage girls grappling with social pressures reoccur throughout his oeuvre, and these works continue to evoke a strong emotional response.
The printed version of this Post cover feature's Rockwell's graduate juxtaposed against a background filled with newspaper headlines about the difficult job market, inflation, and the threat of war. Yet, Rockwell chose to depict his son with a youthful air of innocence and optimism. Ultimately, his message is clear - despite the bad news surrounding him, the graduate has shining bright hopes for his future, a true testament to the American Dream.