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Perspectives Identity

On Motherhood

How does the iconography of motherhood reflect the social, political, and religious ideals of an era?

May 10

lithograph of a weary mother and sleeping boy by Kathe Kollowitz

I have been meeting mothers in museums. Paula Modersohn-Becker’s weighty kneeling nude, her apple-cheeked child suckling from blossom-pink nipples at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Mary Cassatt’s silken study of little Thomas, one sleepy thumb planted between pillowed lips as he nestles into the lace-and-velvet foam of his mama’s bodice at the Kunsthaus Zürich. A trim, crimson-robed matriarch with a tasseled black purse, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, negotiates her way through the throng to have her children blessed by Christ—the baby in the crook of her left arm echoes the doll trailing from her daughter’s hand—at the National Gallery of Denmark.

Painting of Christian seen by Cranach.

Lucas Cranach (German, 1515–86). Christ Blessing the Children, ca. 1537–53. Oil on beech, 22 × 18 1⁄8 in. (56.5 × 29 cm). Courtesy SMK National Gallery of Denmark

I have been meeting flesh-and-blood mothers, too. Traveling Europe by train throughout February, I gathered stories of artists sinking out of sight in a creative industry that barely paused to consider that they might be caring for children. I’ve given lectures to museum staff in Oslo, led workshops in Gothenburg, and advised residency programs on Lake Geneva. Change is possible. Sometimes all that’s needed is to have that revolutionary first thought: that an artist might also be a mother.

Sometimes all that’s needed is to have that revolutionary first thought: that an artist might also be a mother.

Crossing the Atlantic, I ended my tour in March, chatting motherhood at the Art Students League of New York on International Women’s Day. The following morning at The Met I caught up with the Virgin Mary, hand in hand with her aunt Elizabeth, huge rock crystals embedded in their bellies, lenses onto Jesus and Saint John. I met Yashoda nursing the infant Krishna, who twiddles her right nipple as he feeds from the left, and the Javanese mother goddess Men Brajut, whose terracotta skin carries traces of the children that once embraced her. Then, like a whispered finale, came a pale receiving line of mothers and children—works on paper offering visions of maternity over the course of a century.

Split image of mothers.

Left: Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance (German, ca. 1300). The Visitation, ca. 1310–20. Walnut, paint, gilding, rock-crystal cabochons inset in gilt-silver mounts, 23 1/4 × 11 7/8 × 7 1/4 in. (59.1 × 30.2 × 18.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.724) © Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right: Yashoda with the Infant Krishna, early 12th century. India, Chola Period. Copper alloy, h. 17 1/2 in. (44.5 cm); w. 11 13/16 in. (30 cm); d. 10 7/8 in. (27.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lita Annenberg Hazen Charitable Trust Gift, in honor of Cynthia Hazen and Leon B. Polsky, 1982 (1982.220.8) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

The figure of the mother carries extraordinary cultural weight, in European art as elsewhere, from the shifting maternal ideals represented by the Virgin Mary across centuries to the iconography of working women raising children in urban poverty in the modern era. She has been redrawn, over and over, invested with symbolism according to the social, political, and religious ideals of her time.

In the late eighteenth century Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) popularized a model of familial devotion in which the maternal bond was understood as the foundation of a healthy society. The novel made breastfeeding fashionable and the practice became more common among the upper classes during and after the French Revolution (1789–99). In Ingres’s Madame Alexandre Lethière and Her Daughter Letizia (ca. 1815) we find the elegant modern mother as the picture of contentment, fulfilling her role as the foundation of society. Ingres’s women have an otherworldly quality. The lynx-eyed Madame Lethière is no earthy matriarch: she has the oddly proportioned, carved serenity of a devotional statue. Her neoclassical dress leaves the body unconstrained and free to swell with pregnancy, and the breasts accessible for nursing.

Drawing of a mother and child by Ingres.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867). Madame Alexandre Lethière and Her Daughter Letizia, ca. 1815. Graphite, 11 13/16 x 8 11/16 in. (30 x 22.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Grace Rainey Rogers, 1943 (43.85.7) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madame Lethière’s pose is closely echoed by John Linnell’s more sentimental portrait, in which both mother and child are prettified as though with dabs of makeup. We are greeted with pert smiles as if we were the lucky father returned, and invited to imagine this harmonious scene reflecting the mother’s bliss. In both works, childcare is proffered as a woman’s instinctive duty—the satisfaction of this role the only payment she requires.
Mother and Child by Linnell.

John Linnell (British, 1792–1882). Portrait of a Mother and Child, 1823. Graphite with watercolor and gouache (bodycolor), 7 1/2 × 8 1/2 in. (19.1 × 21.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Roberta J. M. Olson and Alexander B. V. Johnson, in memory of Laurie Vance Johnson and E. Dudley H. Johnson, 2014 (2014.703.3) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

A century later, Käthe Kollwitz portrays working women in a rapidly expanding modern city, struggling to support their children. They are capable, muscular, threadbare, and bone-tired—their children, shadow-eyed and grubby. As early as 1908, Kollwitz had portrayed motherhood as a burden to working women. In the Images of Misery, a swollen-bellied woman, weighed down and somnolent, raps work-gnarled knuckles on the doctor’s door. In 1918 German women gained the vote. Reproductive rights became the subject of public debate. Supported by the Communist Party, public demonstrations called for the legalisation of abortion—a cause for which Kollwitz designed a poster in 1923. For those who feared a population crisis after the First World War, the mother’s body was seen as the source of tomorrow’s workforce. Those on the political right promoted wholesome maternity as a patriotic ideal.

lithograph of an exhausted mother physically sheltering her infant and toddler by Kathe Kollwitz.

Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945). Municipal Shelter, 1926. Lithograph, 17 1/4 x 21 1/4 in. (43.8 x 54 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928 (28.68.4) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

The elegant young Madame Lethière may seem to occupy a different world from Kollwitz’s fraught mother, huddled over her infant in the night shelter, yet the ideal expressed by the one image—maternity as sweet contentment, woman’s role fulfilled—weighs heavy on the other. Imagining motherhood as woman’s destiny and domestic duties as their own reward condemned working women to a double burden of labour—a cultural heritage we struggle to shake off today, in the art world as elsewhere.



Marquee: Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867–1945). Worker Woman with Sleeping Boy, 1927. Lithograph, 24 x 17 13/16 in. (61 x 45.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928 (28.68.4) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

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