Since ancient times, people have documented their family history by capturing special moments as well as everyday life in depictions of various kinds, from murals and mosaics to reliefs and intricate jewelry. From the renaissance onwards, the painted portrait gained momentum, entering a realm between dream and reality: an individualised representation was favored, yet of equal importance was the inclusion of symbols pointing to a prosperous and pious existence.
This etching is another telling example. A classic depiction of middle-class life around 1770, the scene revolves around a compact family group in which the artist himself can be seen at work, joined by four children. The intimacy of the scene and the harmony in the household are emphasized by the presence of the mother (instead of a governess) and her gentle gesture towards her daughter.
In the vast art oeuvre dedicated to the family, tenderness, closeness and safety are among the most frequently evoked sentiments. For Mikuláš Galanda, thoughts of blissful family times are invariably connected to the image of the woman and child: a haven in a world full of threats. Growing up in Slovakia at the turn of the 20th century, Galanda experienced severe trauma when at 6 years old, his leg was amputated. Confined to bed, his interest in art started to grow. He went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, but his time there would be cut short by World War I.
After the war he completed his education and became a teacher. During his studies he had fallen in love with María Boudova whom he’d marry in 1931. In the period of their courtship and early marriage, almost all of his works depict human figures in warm tones, exuding closeness and intimacy, expressing Mikuláš's personal happiness.
While painted portraits mainly remained the privilege of the noble and wealthy, the photographic equivalent became all the rage from the second half of the 19th century onwards.
While the vogue emerged in aristocratic circles, having a portrait made by a professional photographer soon turned a widespread practice among middle and working class people. Early photographic procedures were laborious and therefore still pricey, but to many a photograph offered the unique opportunity to tell the story of the family.
Early studio portraits often show family members with well-considered poses and gestures, surrounded by decorative elements and accessories. Men often were depicted in a costume pointing to their professional life, women as embodiments of beauty, elegance, and motherly love, children as pure, well-behaved and respectful. This turn-of-the-century photo conveys the story of a self-made businessman, who also accomplished success in family life. Shown on the right is Aurelio Bonaria, who emigrated from the Varese province in Italy to Luxembourg, where he turned from mason to entrepreneur. He is joined here by his wife and 4 eldest children.
This picture too paints a thousand words: men, of which several wear a costume of the guardia civil, let their hands rest on the shoulders of their respective spouses who are holding bouquets of flowers. The child takes pride of place and is holding a small guitar.
Having a professional produce state-of-the-art pictures remained a popular practice all through the 20th century. Yet with decades passing, people increasingly started documenting their family’s ups and downs, milestone events and everyday life themselves. In the early 1900s, Julius Neubronner - court apothecary to the German empress - was one of the very first to do so with film. Next to documenting daily life, fun outings and memorable events, he also shot short sketches performed by himself, his children and grandchildren on a stage in the garden. Of the videos recorded between 1903 and 1920, 66 from the Deutsches Filminstitut are available on Europeana.
Carl Neubronner (Julius's son) with his daughter, Ilse, 1910s-1920s, Deutsches Filminstitut - DIF. Public Domain
Yet the most prevalent containers of family history are photographs, often assembled in weighty albums. While today snapshots are instantly produced, shared and erased, compiling an album used to take thorough consideration and planning. These carefully crafted, cardboard showcases, often start with the early days of married life and move along with the growing family.
Thanks to such albums, home videos and works of art, we now have a panoramic view of what family life was like in the past. Yet the 21st century too will need its chroniclers. So whatever might be the medium of your choice, think about becoming your family’s storykeeper and help build the legacy of this new century of change.