The First Day of School, by Jean Baptiste Vanmour, currently held by The Rijksmuseum, was created during the 18th century.

Many of us have a memory of a first day of school. Whether donning a backpack filled with crayons and glue for preschool, hopping on the bus for the first time as a kindergarten student, or entering the intimidating halls of high school as a 9th grader, the first day of school can be a big deal!

How do we hold on to those memories? In my experience, my mom often snapped a photo to commemorate the first day of school – something that we could look back on to see how much I grew from year to year, or to laugh at the 1990s fashion.

What was the first day of school like before there were cameras to document the event, and when only the wealthiest families could send their children to school? The First Day of School, a painting by Jean Baptiste Vanmour, gives us some insight.

This painting allows us a glimpse into the life of a wealthy Turkish Muslim family. How is it possible to know the financial status and religion of the people depicted in the painting? The colorful clothing worn by the women tells their religion, as laws at the time allowed only Muslims to wear that type of garment. The painting also shows the wealth of the family since they have a servant carrying the embroidery frame that the young girl will use at school. These details help us to understand more about the life of the girl at the center of the painting.

It is interesting to think about the day-to-day life of this young girl. Here she is, on her way to her first day of school accompanied by her mother and a large group of women. What is going through the girl’s mind? Perhaps she is nervous, especially since this milestone is being made into such a big deal. Maybe a bit of excitement as she wonders what waits at the end of her walk. It is unclear from the painting if she is feeling a lot of pressure or if she is in a more celebratory mood. The painting gives a lot of detail into the physical parts of the girl’s day, but not much insight into her thoughts and emotions.

The painting was created by Jean Baptiste Vanmour, who joined the French ambassador to Constantinople in 1699. Vanmour stayed there until his death in 1737 and painted many scenes and portraits depicting Ottoman life of the era. The Rijksmuseum holds several of his artworks and there is a common theme among them: wealth and ceremony. The subjects of his other paintings include weddings, feasts, and portraits of important government figures.

It is estimated that The First Day of School was painted between 1720 and 1737, meaning that Vanmour had been in Constantinople for many years before creating the artwork. This makes one wonder, why did he choose to capture this particular image? It is possible that the painting was commissioned because the girl was the daughter of an important official and the family wanted a record of the event. Other possibilities include that this was a large community celebration to be documented or that Vanmour was simply curious and intrigued by the procession to school. The painting leaves many questions unanswered, but after comparing a number of Vanmour’s paintings it is clear that this was an important event – a young girl going to school for the very first time really meant something.

-Hillary Rose
Education Advisor
Girl Museum, Inc.

This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.

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