Moms in Art
There is no connection more timeless or pure than the bond between mother and child. But while all cultures uphold the maternal role as sacred, no two honor it in exactly the same way. Mothers are the givers of life, primary nurturers, and symbols of feminine maturity — sometimes all at once.
Of course, cultural attitudes toward motherhood have evolved quite a bit over the years. And so, too, have artistic depictions of mothers themselves.
In February 2017, the internet lost its collective marbles over the elaborate portrait series — conceived by Ethiopian-born photographer Awol Erizku — which formally announced that Beyoncé and husband Jay-Z were expecting twins. The images, featuring the iconic singer in various states of undress, were the latest in a long line of controversial celebrity maternity portraits — most recently exemplified by Kim Kardashian’s pregnant selfies, but which date back (at least) to Annie Leibovitz’s 1991 photos of actress Demi Moore.
For that matter, pregnancy portraits are an artistic tradition that’s been carried out for thousands of years.
In antiquity, motherhood was recognized as a powerful force of nature. Women, like Mother Earth herself, were sources of life. As such, many ancient depictions of maternity centered around fertility and divinity.
Meet Coatlicue, also known to the Aztec civilization as the “mother of the gods.” Though she has the face of a snake, she is also adorned with human hands, as well as the swollen, hanging breasts of a pregnant woman. Coatlicue represents both the life-giving and destructive nature of the earth itself.
The Venus of Willendorf was discovered in 1908, in modern day Austria. Some experts believe the ancient limestone statue, which dates back to the Paleolithic Period (nearly 30,000 years ago!), may have been used in fertility rituals. But it’s also been suggested that this early example of maternity art might have been a self-portrait.
Gaia is the Greek mythological representation of the earth, and mother of all creation. In this ceiling painting — created by German artist Anselm Feuerbach for the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna — she takes the form of a mortal woman (as the Greek gods often did). But her proximity to the winged cherub remind us of her divinity.
With the cherub appearing as Gaia's child, Feuerbach's painting is also an example of...
While the previous category focused on Mother Nature, these examples are all about Mother Nurture. And just as Mother Earth is defined by the life she gives, so, too, is the caretaker inseparable from the child at her side.
The Madonna — or Mary, mother of the child Jesus Christ — is perhaps the most well-known artistic example of the mother-as-caretaker. Sandro Botticelli's 1480 painting, The Virgin and Child, is one of many prominent works to depict this sacred pairing.
Diego Rivera's 1916 painting, Maternidad, Angelina y el niño Diego, is a Crystal Cubist portrait of Rivera's wife with the couple's newborn son. Because of the painting's abstract qualities, it's somewhat difficult for the viewer to see where Angelina ends and baby Diego begins — symbolizing the unbreakable bond between mother and son.
Dorothea Lange's 1936 Migrant Mother features Dust Bowl-era farmer Florence Owens Thompson with three of her seven children. It serves as a reminder of the intense sacrifices mothers make for their kids.
But while Thompson is immortalized alongside her children, it's only her face we see — giving us a glimpse of the determined, multi-faceted person Lange chose to photograph. Which brings us to our next category...
The Divine Feminine
While it still honors motherhood, the Divine Feminine archetype celebrates mothers as autonomous, complex beings. Pregnant women aren't defined solely by their swollen bellies, and mothers take center stage when appearing alongside their children.
Though she never married or had children of her own, French artist Marguerite Gérard was known for her warm portrayals of late 18th century family life. Her 1788 painting, Sleep My Child, shows a young mother playing a lute beside her infant. With the baby tucked away in its bassinet, mom's artistic expression is on full display — a great leap forward from earlier portraits, where it seemed a mother simply couldn’t be depicted without a child in her arms.
Gertrude Käsebier's The Heritage of Motherhood (1904) depicts the photographer's friend, Agnes Lee, in mourning after the loss of her daughter. Though she's clearly grieving, Lee retains a look of quiet dignity. This work is notable not only for capturing the most difficult time in any mother's life, but also for illustrating perseverance through times of personal tragedy.
But while most contemporary maternity portraits aren’t nearly so somber, they often stir up a variety of emotions — which brings us back to those much-discussed Beyoncé pictures. Though some found the photos to be a bit much, they’re actually firmly rooted in classical art tradition.
The photo above references Guido Reni's 1639 painting, Reclining Venus with Cupid — with Blue Ivy Carter gifting a flower to her mother, in lieu of Cupid handing an arrow to Venus.
Beyoncé is given love by her daughter, with Blue Ivy's flower standing in for Cupid's arrow. And yes, Queen Bey is visibly pregnant, but she isn't solely defined by her daughter's affection, nor her pregnancy. Indeed, she remains an adored symbol of feminine love and beauty — truly a modern day Venus.
The fact that Beyoncé's pregnancy photos are at once contemporary and classical seems appropriate — reflective of the modern woman's desire to “have it all.” Of course, that doesn't mean these images are realistic. As much as depictions of motherhood have evolved, there are still some things which are considered “too taboo.”
For one thing, while society remains awed by the miracle of childbirth, the actual process — in all its gory detail — has rarely been illustrated accurately. Such images are virtually absent in art history. And, even in popular culture, birth tends to be overly sanitized or turned into comedic fodder.
Some contemporary artists are aiming to change that, with frank, realistic portrayals in paintings, sculpture, and other media. If you’re prepared for graphic content, you'll find some examples here (NSFW).
With classical representations of moms mounting a comeback alongside grittier, more honest fare, it's difficult to say what tomorrow's artworks will look like. But if the last few centuries are any indication, they'll be every bit as complex as mothers themselves.