Motherhood is one of the most natural things in life – after all, someone gave birth to all of us – but it is hardly ever mentioned in the art world. A likely reason for this is probably that until very recently, the art world – sigh – has been a man’s world, and men – even if they are father’s themselves – can’t really relate to being a mother, or let’s be honest, the very physical act of giving birth.
That said, throughout history, there have been a number of women artists shining a light on their experiences and relationship to the whole idea of being a mother, and without further ado, we are going to put a spotlight on something we hope that the art world will soon admit is at the very core of life: motherhood.
Artemisia Gentileschi (Mother and Child, 1612)
Artemisia Gentileschi is considered to be one of the very first female artists and was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Unfortunately, until very recently, she has been regarded as a curiosity since she was raped and forced to participate in the rape prosecution (where was the #MeToo Movement in the seventeenth century?). Fortunately, she is finally beginning to be given the recognition she deserves and she will have an exhibition at London’s National Gallery next year. And, in addition to succeeding in having a career when it was near-on-impossible for women artists to do so, she also had a daughter – Prudentia – amongst all this. While we haven’t been able to find any images Artemisia made of Prudentia, she did make many portraits of mothers and their children.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (Self Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie, 1786)
During her career Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun painted over 600 portraits, including over 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette – many of them also including her children. In fact, Elisabeth often made images of mothers with their babies and children, and even depicted her own role as a mother to her daughter Julie, showing that she was an absolute queen at maintaining a career and being a mother.
Berthe Morisot (The Cradle, 1872)
Berthe Morisot was one of the few women working as an artist within a heavily male-dominated world. One of the impressionists, she was described as one of “les trois grandes dames”, one of three women – along with Marie Bracquemond and Mary Casssatt – working within the group. She had a daughter, Julie, with Edouard Manet’s brother Eugene, who often posed for her mother. We’re not sure if this painting is of Berthe and Julie, but it’s touching either way.
Paula Modersohn-Becker (Reclining Mother and Child, 1906)
Like many women, Paula Modersohn-Becker was concerned about how motherhood might have an impact on her artistic career. She didn’t want to have children until the age of 30, but when her daughter Mathilde was born in 1907 she was overjoyed. Unfortunately, joy turned to tragedy, as Paula died just 19 days later with her daughter in her arms.
Alice Neel (Nancy and the Twins, 1971)
Alice Neel painted many portraits, including a portrait of the queen of feminism in art herself – Linda Nochlin – and her daughter. Neel had four children of her own, but is probably most famous for her works depicting images of other mothers and their children, showing the intimate relationship between women and their babies.
Leonora Carrington (The Guardian of the Egg, 1947)
Just look at this oversized goddess, covered in beautiful soft fur, cradling a tiny egg. She appears like an absolute fertility queen, with her bare feat standing on top of a golden field. Carrington had two children with her second husband photographer Emerico Weisz, Gabriel and Pablo, both of whom also went into the arts, Gabriel becoming a poet, and Pablo a surrealist artist like his mother.
Ruth Asawa (Looped Wire Installations, 1950s-90s)
Ruth Asawa’s crocheted wire sculptures are often read in relation to her roles as both mother and arts teacher. The forms linking into one another – kind of like DNA – are link the bond between mother and child, and also between families.
Louise Bourgeois (Spider, 1997)
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????LOUISE BOURGEOIS???? ▫️ Spider | 1997 | @christies ▫️ “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” ▫️ I love this quote by Louise Bourgeois because it embodies her personal motivation as an artist. The main force behind her work was to cope with her troubled childhood memories. In other words, she turned art therapy into an ultra-successful 70-year career. Not bad if you ask me. ▫️ When she was young, Bourgeois discovered that her father was having an affair with her English tutor, who lived in their family’s home. This deeply troubling —and ultimately defining— betrayal remained a vivid memory for Bourgeois for the rest of her life. As if that wasn’t enough, her mother passed away when Bourgeois was just 22 years old. This sudden loss, coupled with her father’s infidelity, led to an intense fear of abandonment and a deep appreciation of motherhood, both key themes in Bourgeois’s work. ▫️ Now that we know all of this background, let’s talk about that gigantic spider. Over the course of her long career, Bourgeois made countless sculptures, prints, and works on paper, but her defining artistic moment came in the later stages of her life, when she embarked on the iconic Spider series. Bourgeois started the series in 1994 at the seasoned age of 83, already a mother of three. As she grew older, Bourgeois became obsessed with the concept of motherhood, and the spiders were the manifestation of this obsession. Bourgeois used the spider, both a predator (a sinister threat) and protector (an industrious repairer), as a symbol of the mother figure. The spinning and weaving of the spider’s web references Bourgeois’s own mother, who worked in the tapestry restoration business. Hence, these works are, at their core, a tribute to Bourgeois’ mother. *cue goosebumps* ▫️ #louisebourgeois #spider #sculpture #contemporaryart #modernart #art #artsy #artistic #instaart #artist #sculptor #auction #christies #sothebys #museum #moma #museumofmodernart #metmuseum #metropolitanmuseumofart #guggenheim
Louise Bourgeois had three children, one of whom was adopted, but it seems that she was just as inspired by her own mother as by being a mother herself. Her images of spiders are a stand-in for her mother, and she described both spider and mother as being patient, kind, reasonable and indispensable.
Kara Walker (8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, 2005)
In 2017 Octavia Burgel – daughter of Kara Walker, wrote for Vice about what it’s like being Kara Walker’s Daughter, providing an insight on the realities of being the offspring of an art world icon. She also explained that her mother often hid behind her, using her as an excuse not to go to events or to talk with people she didn’t want to. But Kara Walker is inspired by Octavia too. In 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, she uses both her own and Octavia’s voice to comment on how her own image as an artist and woman of color has been affected by the heritage of early American slavery.
Yoko Ono (My Mommy is Beautiful, 2017)
Yoko Ono’s career has spanned decades, styles and genres, often dividing opinions across the globe. In 2017 the mother of two made a work called My Mommy is Beautiful at the Hirshhorn Museum, a 40-foot long installation that invited viewers to bring a photograph or write a memory about their mothers. In the end the work represented a monument to mothers around the world.
Words Lizzy Vartanian
Images via Wikipedia, @leonoracarringtonestate, @museum.addict, @hirshhorn, @sf.mk,sf, @_octa_