This oil painting depicts three children (one boy and two girls) posing with props is one of a small number of paintings from New England showing cultural icons of Puritan society. It is carefully detailed and fascinating to look at. There is an interaction between these figures: gazes that cross each other, the distortion of the girls’ hands make it seem like they are reaching to hold hands, to give each other support, subtly demonstrating a silent bond despite a space between them. The separation of the girls from David is marked by the walking stick, which serves to separate the two sexes.

The composition tells the viewer about the time and society in which the painting was produced. The girls are symmetrically posed with Joanna set slightly forward on the plane creating a one-point linear perspective indicated by the floor pattern. David’s posture further adds distance, as well as indicated the youth’s predestination to be someone of prominence in his community as shown by the enlarged stomach, then a sign of prosperity.

The use of color is subdued but exciting at the same time. The chiaroscuro is dramatic; values are extreme between dark rich browns and greys and the intensely light whites and beiges, with one exception – the red hue – that is used on the girls. This intense red stands out as a strong statement for during this time wearing red symbolized passions not to be shown in public. However, I believe the use of red in this picture reflects the passion of our county’s youth.

The textures in this work are precise and clean from the contour lines to the lovely modeling of the skin, to the softness of the hair. The textures of the delicate lace, fine leather, shiny ribbons, heavy fabrics, and shear stockings demonstrate the skill of the artist. “The Mason Children, David, Joanna and Abigail” could be a symbol of the first American frontier, for it is a group of people who have the garden, and who long to have a society with all of its structure. Society is shown through the cane and fan; religion is shown with a rosary, and the garden is symbolized with the red rose. Even at this point, Colonials needed to be bound by the restrictions of civilizations symbolized by the red ribbons that bind the girls’ neck, arms, and feet. For me the unknown Freake-Gibbs Painter has done a brilliant job in conveying the youth of America.

“The Mason Children, David, Joanna, and Abigail” (circa 1670) at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (online):