Isn’t it interesting that 9% of the US population has a birthday in August? That’s the highest for any month and certainly brings the brain to wonder what was so conducive to baby-making nine months ago. So if August brings lots of new baby bundles, then an article I read recently can be brought into play. It was about a book called Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It by Lise Eliot, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School.
Eliot had started writing a book about the differences between the brains of boys and girls, but faltered when she found the evidence just wasn’t there. So that project turned into this one, in which she draws on her experiences as a scientist and mother to make a case for the plasticity of young brains. Eliot argues that it’s the way we treat different genders that shapes our expectations of boys and girls. Her advice seems straightforward: short of giving little girls toy guns and dressing boys in pink from birth, the idea is that parents can bring out untraditional strengths in their kids if they so choose. Focus on feelings with a young son for instance, or get him a pet to stir nurturing skills. Get a girl to take more risks and really get stuck into physical play. Basically it seems Eliot’s all about the open mind: just because she’s a girl, doesn’t mean she won’t like trucks and mud. And just because he’s a boy, doesn’t mean he isn’t scared of going down the slide.
Thank goodness that in the case of today’s painting, we shan’t be concerned with gender stereotypes, for in Fragonard’s Visit to the Nursery (c. 1775) there are more important things at play. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) represents the final, magnificent flourish of the Rococo style in France. Having made his name with history painting in the grand manner in 1765, he abandoned seriousness and turned to more congenial subjects. Indeed today we know him as a typical painter of gallant and sentimental scenes, though this work in fact has Fragonard in more muted voice. First of all we’re not with a frivolous maiden in a frothy dress: here we’re bedside in a domestic interior. The style also stresses a more sober approach: clear and stable composition (with a pyramid form at its center), diluted color-palette and controlled brushwork. Together these all indicate the stricter tastes that were de rigueur in pre-Revolution France.
This sweet-as-peaches scene seems busy celebrating the sound morals of home. Our attention is trained on a familial set-up in which a couple behold the babe that is blissfully sound asleep. The artist has tamped down his interest in vibrant colour and wilful brushwork to deliver something much more pure and simple. And how interesting that our penchant for peering in on the lives of others (especially if they are raising children) has remained essentially unchanged for years.