With a career and a life to balance and the dating market looking more than a little bleak (I, for one, have gone through all my Tinder matches and the love of my life is nowhere to be found) it’s no wonder that more and more young people are putting off (or saying “no thanks” to) starting a family.
And even if the thought of baby socks makes your heart melt, the sad reality is that many women are still being forced to choose between children and professional success. Call me old fashioned—or call me Margaret Atwood—but I just don’t want to live in a world where freezing my eggs is any concern of my employer’s.
Of course, Western women are the lucky ones. Millions of women around the world are battling for control over their own reproduction, and for them, freezing their eggs would seem as out of the question as traveling to the moon to give birth. But no matter where in the world you live, one thing is sure: being a woman on this planet is way more complicated than being a man.
But amidst an exhausting and seemingly endless battle for freedom and equality, it’s worth remembering that biology is not the enemy—the enemies are outdated thought and repressive social structures. Like it or not, even the most radical feminists can agree that nature handed off all of humanity’s baby-making responsibilities to the female body. Scorning motherhood only adds onto the layers of toxic patriarchal thought shrouding our societies—wouldn’t it be better to learn to accept, value and celebrate it?
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the different ways artists have approached this super-complex subject across time and different cultures.
The Madonna and Child is probably the most common motherhood scene from the last 2,000 years of Western art history. Even today, when religion no longer dominates the art world, it’s hard to make a picture of a mother and a child that doesn’t somehow reference the O.G. mother-child duo.
But let’s not forget that, like most of the art world canon, the majority of pictures of the Madonna and Child were made by men. This Renaissance painting by Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the few well-known versions made by a woman artist.
That in itself is enough reason to give this painting a second look, but Gentileschi’s life makes her take on motherhood even more complex and compelling. Trained as a painter by her artist father, Gentileschi was raped when she was 18 by a man who worked for her father. The highly-publicized trial convicted the man, but not after putting Gentileschi through a huge amount of psychological, and even physical (!!), torture. She went on to marry and have several children, although she and her husband separated and she lived as the head of the household for most of her life, which was pretty much unheard of at the time.
Gentileschi painted Madonna and Child when she was only 20, just after her rape trial, marriage and the birth of her daughter. Her trauma still fresh, Gentileschi emphasizes Mary’s tenderness towards her son in this painting—she leans protectively over her child, offering her breast. At risk of reading too deeply into it, we could hope that motherhood gave Gentileschi some peace, a way to heal and move forward after her assault.
At the same time, Mary doesn’t return Christ’s gaze—her eyes are closed while he looks up at her, his hands reaching for his mother’s face while hers surround him but do not touch him. Because of this, she seems distant and aloof, lost in her own world. Did she close her eyes for a second, to soak up the moment with her beloved baby, or is she off in her own thoughts—reliving painful memories, or maybe even dreaming up her next painting?
We don’t know, but the suggestion is clear: this woman has an inner world removed from her role as a mother to her child, even when that child is Jesus Christ. Pretty ballsy for a Renaissance painting, don’t you think?
Highly successful court portraitist and member of the ultra-conservative Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture of France), Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was born into a bourgeois family.
As a child, she spent more time with her nanny than with her mother, which was common at the time. Mostly to escape her family, she married a known libertin (French for fuckboy) and had a daughter, Julie, who makes an appearence this painting. Legend has it (ok, Wikipedia has it) that Le Brun continued to paint during her first contractions—that’s true dedication to the craft. When Le Brun fled France for Russia to escape the Revolution, she took her daughter with her and raised her as—the horror!—a single working mother.
In this self-portrait, Julie and her mother practically merge into one person, the colors of their skin and clothing blending together. Julie looks like an adorable mini-me, with Le Brun cradling and protecting her and showing her off at the same time. Her face looks smug AF—“Look at my perfect cherubic baby, you peasants! And I’m really good at painting, know all the secrets and scandals of the European elite and have a killer turban. Beat that.”
Unfortunately, Julie didn’t grow up to be quite so angelic as this picture suggests, and Le Brun wasn’t exactly the model mother either. As a rebellious teen, Julie fell in love with a poor secretary and starved herself until her mother let the couple marry. As teens do, I guess. The marriage lasted a whole two weeks, until Julie decided that her new husband looked weird in a bathrobe (to be fair, I’ve ended a relationship for the same reason—it’s called sudden repulsion syndrome, look it up).
It must have pretty much gone downhill from there, because Julie died penniless at age 39. For her adult life, Le Brun refused to support her daughter financially because she didn’t like her friends, although apparently she was extremely shaken when her daughter died. So next time you see your high school friend’s perfect family photos on Facebook, remember that you have no clue what shit is brewing under the surface.
It’s a bit ironic that one of the most iconic painters of motherhood, Mary Cassatt, never married or had children. Like many women artists of her day, Cassatt chose (or was forced to choose) art over marriage. But she spent much of her adult life with her sister Lydia and her children, who probably served as the models and inspiration for Cassatt’s many paintings depicting mothers and children.
We definitely shouldn’t assume that Cassatt wanted children just because she was a woman and presumably had a functioning womb. At the same time, must have at least wondered what it would have been like to experience in her own life the thing that she painted over and over again.
It’s the tension between her life and her art that infuse Cassat’s mother-child paintings with depth and symbolism. On one hand, Cassat’s art reinforces traditional notions of “ideal” motherhood, a tender, graceful and domestic respite from the hectic, industrialized, quickly modernizing world. Her obsessive focus on the subject also could be read as an unfulfilled longing, which plays neatly into the idea that a woman without children must feel incomplete.
On the other hand, Cassatt clearly chose her art over a family life (see: every other woman in the art history who was forced to give up painting when she married). Then why dwell on the thing that she sacrificed?
Or, consider this theory: Cassatt’s paintings show her ability to appreciate motherhood without wanting it for herself. If you look at this way, her paintings become about tolerance and choice. Her art says that a woman can be happy and fulfilled as a stay-at-home mother; her life says that a woman can be happy and fulfilled as a single, childless working artit. Neither is right and neither is wrong, and both are meaningful in their own way. In an age when we’ve all suddenly decided to start shoving our opinions down each other’s throats like it’s the Inquisition, Cassatt’s message needs to be heard loud and clear: to each their own.
Give birth to a child.
See the world through its eye.
Let it touch everything possible
and leave its fingermark there
in place of a signature.
i.e., Snow in India
This poem/conceptual art piece originally appeared in the 1960s, among Ono’s many instruction pieces. Touch Poem was included in the 1964 book Grapefruit and has appeared in several of the artist’s exhibits, including a 2006 show, Grapefruit, at the Berkeley Art Museum in San Francisco.
In typical Ono fashion, the poem is at once cryptic and almost natively optimistic, setting her work apart from the anti-everything attitude of many of her Fluxus contemporaries. There’s a distinctive Zen flair to this piece; you can’t quite extract a specific meaning from the words, but if you let them percolate inside of you long enough, you can feel something land.
Still, a close reading yields several big ideas surrounding motherhood. The first two lines portray motherhood as a type of rebirth that changes the way the mother sees the world. They also hint at Ono’s hands-off parenting philosophy: gently allow your children to explore the world without restraining or even guiding them too much.
The next three paint a child’s life as a sort of experiential piece. The child soaks in everything life throws its way, touches everything in reach, and when it does, it leaves a signature, like an artist signing a recently completed work. Ono seems to tell us that by just going through life, you turn your experiences into art, and as a mother, you get to facilitate this process for your child. Since you got the whole ball rolling, the art is also yours—you made the child, who made the signature. You and your child become collaborators on the work of art that is a life. Poetic, no?
“CRACK THE PELVIS SO SHE LIES RIGHT. THIS IS A MISTAKE. WHEN SHE DIES YOU CANNOT REPEAT THE ACT. THE BONES WILL NOT GROW TOGETHER AGAIN AND THE PERSONALITY WILL NOT COME BACK. SHE IS GOING TO SINK DEEP INTO THE MOSS TO GET WHITE AND LIGHTER. SHE IS UNRESPONSIVE TO BEGGING AND SELF-ABSORBED PEOPLE GO TO THE RIVER WHERE IT IS LUSH AND MUDDY TO SHOOT CAPTIVES, TO FLOAT OR SINK THEM. SHOTS KILL MEN WHO ALWAYS WANT. SOMEONE IMAGINED OR SAW THEM LEAPING TO SAVAGE THE GOVERNMENT. NOW BODIES DIVE AND GLIDE IN THE WATER, SCARING FRIENDS OR MAKING THEM FURIOUS. LIGHT GOES THROUGH BRANCHES TO SHOW TWO CHILDREN BORN AT ONCE WHO MIGHT LIVE. THE MOTHER RAN FROM EVERY HAZARD UNTIL THE BABIES EASED ONTO THE LEAVES. WITH BOTH HANDS SHE BRINGS THEM TO HER MOUTH. CALLING THEM TWICE THE USUAL ANSWER TO MORAL QUESTIONS. SHE IS DELIGHTFUL AND MILKY SO THEY WILL WANT TO GROW.”
Text displayed on 3 LED electronic display signboards hanging in front of 9 engraved granite benches. Via Diane Waldman, Jenny Holzer (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2004).
Created in response to the horrors of the war in Yugoslavia, Jenny Holzer’s Under a Rock takes on motherhood in a political context. A mother herself, Holzer presents children as a symbol for hope for the future, the mother as the source that will nurture humanity and lead it forward towards peace.
The work conjures up a very visceral image of the human survival instinct. You can practically see the scene as an HBO drama; a frantic mother dashes through a dense, prehistoric/futuristic forest (this is HBO so obviously we don’t know), standing strong while chaos and death surround her, determined to save her children at all costs. Like much of Holzer’s work, the scene is clearly an allegory meant to make us reflect on the state of society.
In a way, Holzer’s image of the mother is primitive, pre-social, even prehistoric. There’s some earthy, fertility goddess imagery happening; while everything around reeks of death and destruction, the mother is “delightful and milky.” As the only source of life in this desolate scene, she becomes the mother not just of her children, but of the earth, the future, humanity itself. The last line is crucial—she doesn’t just give her children the means to live, but the will to live. She inspires them in a deeper way, a way that goes beyond the physical realm.
To sum it up, we’re going to have get a little Freudian. I’m really sorry in advance, but there’s really no other way—and no other use for all the philosophy classes I took in college, so you’ll just have to bear with me. Here we go!
In Under a Rock, Jenny Holzer positions the mother as the symbol of Eros, humanity’s instinct for survival, sex, growth and creation, who is holding out against humanity’s death drive, which is exactly what it sounds like. And despite the bleakness of the scene as a whole, the last lines leave us hopeful—we’re supposed to come out thinking that the kids will be alright. Okay, class dismissed!
Images via Wikipedia, Wikimedia, WikiArt, Amazon, the Broad Museum