Mothers, seen with or without their children, have been a favored theme in Western art since man (or woman) first picked up a stone and found a surface upon which to draw. Images of motherhood, both sacred and secular and often idealized, have figured within almost every major art movement.

In this painting by Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, the young woman is perhaps a princess, and her child the issue of a liaison with St. John Chrysostom, one of the founders of the Eastern Church.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Young Mother with Child

Portrait painter Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun enjoyed the patronage of Marie-Antoinette and the aristocracy during the Ancien Régime. When the royal family was arrested in October 1789, she fled France with her daughter, Julie. By so doing, they escaped the fate of many of their class. Vigée-Le Brun did many self-portraits, often with her daughter.

Élizabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie

One of the most recognizable American paintings of  a mother who became a national icon was in fact painted in London while Mrs. Whistler lived there with her son, James McNeill Whistler. It has, for most of the time since its creation, resided in Paris, having been purchased by the French state in 1891. There, it was exhibited first at the Musée du Luxembourg where, to Whistler’s satisfaction, it received the appreciation it never gained in London. It now belongs to the Musée d’Orsay.

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1

Vincent van Gogh’s mother was an amateur artist who shared her love of art with her children. She made drawings and watercolors of plants and flowers,  and among Vincent’s earliest drawings are found copies of his mother’s sketches.

Vincent painted the likeness after a black-and-white photograph. As he wrote to his brother, Theo, ” I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory.” I think the result achieves the sobriety worthy of a Dutch pastor’s wife, while conveying sensitivity and kindness.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

Willliam-Adolphe Bouguereau’s modern interpretations of  classical subjects, both Christian and pagan, were hugely popular during his lifetime but he fell out of favor at the beginning of the last century. A renewed interest in figure painting in the 1980’s led to a revival of interest in Bouguereau and his works.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, L’Innocence (Innocence)

This charming portrait by Maurice Denis of his first wife, Marthe, and their baby daughter Noëlle was painted from a black-and-white photograph. Marthe was a model for many of his paintings, and they had seven children.

Maurice Denis, Noëlle et sa mère

In 1901, Pablo Picasso visited the Prison Saint-Lazare, which had been converted into a women’s prison in the 19th century. He was particularly disturbed by the presence of children in the prison. The despair evident in the posture of the mother in this painting (who is recognizable as an inmate by her white bonnet) is typical of the melancholy in Picasso’s Blue Period, but there is optimism in the allusion to the Madonna and Child.

Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child (1902)

Mary Cassatt was an American artist who lived most of her life in France, where she exhibited with the Impressionists. Cassatt was best known for her tender, intimate images of mothers and children, yet she never married or had children of her own.

Mary Cassatt, Mere et enfant (Reine Lefebre and Margo before a Window)

And let us not forget the mothers whose children are of the four-legged variety. In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting below, we can almost feel the affection the young woman holds for her cat.

Pierre-August Renoir, Femme au chat (Woman with a Cat)

Pierre Bonnard’s wife, Marthe, was a constant in his life and an ever-present subject in his work. In his intimate depictions of their life together, their little dog shows up often. In the painting below, Marthe is shown, seated at the table while holding the dog in her lap.

Pierre Bonnard, Woman with Dog

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

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2 Responses to Motherhood

  1. lorinhart says:

    Thank you, lovely paintings…I stood before Van Gogh’s portrait of his mother just this afternoon at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena…In the notes it said that it may be that the reds Van Gogh used have faded badly leaving the color of the figure more green than it was originally…huh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad you liked them. What a coincidence that you should be there and able to shed some light, just as I was wondering about the greenish cast. Hope you had a happy Mother’s Day.

    Liked by 1 person

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