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Special Report

Little Princes -
Portraits of Children...

Attributed to Antonio Carnicero
Portrait of a girl wearing a red skirt, ca. 1786
Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober, Inv. Nr. 19
© Pere Colom

Portrait of twins
18th century
Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober, Inv. Nr. 16

Portrait of a child of the Palafox family, Spain, 1643
Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober, Inv. Nr. 10
© Jaume Gual

Pierre Gobert
Portrait of Louis XV as a child, ca. 1712
© Jaume Gual
Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober, Inv. Nr. 56


BONN, GERMANY.- The Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany presents today “Little Princes - Portraits of Children from the 16th to 19th Centuries from the Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober,” on view through January 4, 2004. 85 portraits of children from a private collection in Majorca offer fascinating insights into the art of 16th to 19th century portrait painting. They also provide an impressive view of the world in which children of noble social classes from Central Europe, France, Italy, and Spain lived. The identity of many of these children is known. Some of them had a very moving fate, even when still very young – as for example the later emperor Charles Vth who grew up in Mechelen with his aunt Margaret, regent of the Netherlands; or Charles II of Spain who inherited an empire in which ‘the sun never set’ before he was even four years.

The paintings lead the viewers into a strictly regulated world which becomes all the more touching because it is alien to our modern sensibility. Babies, wrapped like cocoons and lying in luxurious cradles, and children dressed like adults fascinate and astonish us at the same time. The amulets given to noble and upper class society children document a predominant belief (and superstition) in their power to protect wearers from harm.

Because children of both sexes were dressed in skirts until their seventh year of age, girls are only identified by earrings or elaborate hairdos. Colors also give no indication of sex: as a result, the viewer instinctively thinks that the portrait of Louis 15th in a pink dress shows a girl. The children’s predominantly serious faces exude a mixture of tender charm and dignity, mirroring the high expectations their heritage demands.

These moving portraits of ‘little princes and princesses’ were often executed, due to the high death rate among children, as reminders to posterity or, as is the case with the high nobility, to prepare marriages – often within the family - at a very early age. One may therefore view the exhibition as a family history – the history of the great European dynasties in which alliances played a decisive role. An example of this are the portraits of the later French king Louis 13th and the Infanta Anna of Austria and their mutual son Louis 14th. The chronological order of these portraits exhibit the changes in children’s portraits over time. Around the end of the 18th century, children’s portraits gradually lost their strict elegance and became more lively, mirroring the more liberal treatment of children in the society.

Yannick and her husband Ben Jakober are British artists living in Malta and Mallorca. Marie-Claire Yannick Vu coming from a family of painters, sculptors, pianists, and further back surgeons and merchants, a Vietnamese father and a French mother and her first marriage to the Italian artist Domenico Gnoli (Rome 1933 – New Yorck 1970) gave her a fertile background to develop her own style.

Benedikt B. P. Jakober on the other hand stems from a bourgeois family of Hungarian origin who collected impressionist art. He was born in Vienna and brought up in England, then worked many years in Paris in matters unrelated to art but was always surrounded by artists among them Gnoli. Encouraged by Yannick Vu he finally made the decision when he was nearly 45 years old to leave everything and become an artist. After pursuing their careers independently they started to work and sign together when invited to participate in the 1993 Venice Biennale by Achille Bonito Oliva.

The collection of portraits of children of the Yannick and Ben Jakober Foundation - The collection was started timidly in the early 70s and only really became an obsession when their 19 year old daughter was killed in a road accident. With the help of numerous friendly mecenas the foundation, crated in 1993, for which they are for the moment responsible was able to assemble a good number of these portraits. The decision for taking a picture into the collection was always hotly debated, researched and re-examined – obviously budgetary considerations played an important role and many sought after works were therefore out of reach.

Can you speak of the “artists eye” being the guiding light in the choice of the pictures acquired? At all events you cannot say that they are sweet nor pleasing nor decorative – criteria which often are taken into account for these sort of collections. On the contrary one could say that they are hard sometimes even ungainly but in any case rigorous interpretations of already grownup looking and dressed children aware of their destiny and what will be expected of them.

The museum of the Yannick and Ben Jakober Foundation - El Aljibe, normally houses the most important part of the collection of portraits of children. Originally conceived as a deposit for water used to irrigate avocado pears and screened behind ancient olive trees and aromatic plants, it was transformed, with just a few changes, by the addition of a Corten steel roof designed by Antonio Obrador. Steps that descend lead into El Aljibe, where you can view the portraits of young people from all eras. The subterranean space is multipurpose and when part of the collections of portraits of children is on loan to museums elsewhere, the central partitions can be moved and the space turned into a single room capable of accommodating modern art – an exhibition of work by Domenico Gnoli is planned – and contemporary sculpture. The lighting system is flexible, allowing changes to be made to the spotlights – which are generally focused precisely on the paintings, bathing them in light – and hence enabling them to be used for other purpose. The critic Peter Schjeldahl writes that the true identity of a museum does not lie in its construction but in its collection – not in the container but in the contents. It is this idea that the Yannick and Ben Jakober Foundation strive to fulfil with the plain concrete walls painted white and the black polished slate floor that subtly reflects the paintings. Schjeldahl also divides small museums into what he describes as “boutique”, “pavilions” and “laboratories”. The Yannick and Ben Jakober Foundation do not aim to fall precisely into one of these categories. If the Foundation had to define the ambience that it aspire to, it would not be the Monet Foundation in Giverny but instead the Beyeler Foundation in Riehn near Basel or the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in the Danish city of Humblebæk.

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