David's Children

A deviation from the artist’s lofty images of “great men,” these charming medallions depict David’s children, Robert and Hélène. The portraits record the chubby and dimpled flesh of infancy. Each child wears a coral necklace, an item considered since antiquity to protect against evil. In the nineteenth century, such necklaces remained popular christening gifts.

Typically for David, who often imbued everyday life with the symbolic, the portraits are also allegories — in this instance, of the senses of taste and smell. Robert sucks his thumb while Hélène presses a fragrant narcissus flower to her nose. The medallions illustrate the sensual immediacy of a child’s first engagement with the world, unfettered by thought and socialization.