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Inspired by the exhibition 'Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard' at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts – and the questions it raises about representations of mothers in art – Arts Society Collections Intern Helen Record takes a look at The Barber’s permanent collection for other works that explore this subject.

Motherhood and art is an iconic duo. It could be argued that mothers are one of the most featured subjects in the history of art – particularly considering the impact of the Christian imagery of mother and child over the centuries. Visit any historic museum, gallery or church, and we are bombarded by depictions of maternal love, care and devotion – or are we? These mothers, virgins and madonnas offer an idealised vision of the maternal bond and can appear staged, devoid of the complex and powerful emotions that exist between a mother and her offspring.

Each of us has a different relationship with our own mother, and so every artistic representation of a mum is unique. There are far more stock ‘mothers’ (Virgin Marys, Madonnas, etc.) in The Barber Institute than ‘mums’ as we would recognise them. Yet a little bit of delving reveals a number of mums in art that offer alternative, refreshing and perhaps more realistic portrayals of motherhood.

Even without knowledge of art historical trends, this work by Matteo di Giovanni is clearly an image of a mother and her young child. The woman holds the baby close, gently touching the infant’s hand. But this painting does little to explore the reality of motherhood. The mother looks underwhelmed – her expression is perhaps more one of boredom than affection or pride. She holds her child as if he were an object, not a helpless baby. It may resonate with some mums who find it difficult to form the initial bond with their babies. But this is unlikely to be the artist’s intention, especially because the Madonna is not wearing practical clothes for the physically demanding and often messy job of looking after a newborn. This may be an exquisitely painted and intriguing picture, but it shows a standardised artistic view of a 'mother', not a 'real-life mum'.

Paternal Love

Paternal Love

Étienne Aubry (1745–1781)

Étienne Aubry’s Paternal Love may seem an odd choice for an exploration of the maternal experience. It is impossible to disregard the mother’s central position in the painting. Aubry’s work shows two parents and their three young sons, with a grandfather watching over them. The mother is illuminated at the heart of the family, her cheeks glowing with devotion and her lips breaking into a smile as she regards her children. She is enjoying a moment of rest, the children distracted for a short while by their father. The way in which the boy in green clutches at his mum’s hand, looking up at her adoringly, yearning for her attention, epitomises the intense bond of dependency and love that exists between them. This is no superficial ‘mother’. This is a mum in her element, linchpin of the family and rock of stability for her children.

A very different depiction of motherhood can be seen in Hans Thoma’s lithograph The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Mary and Joseph are seen sitting on a rock, clearly exhausted, the mother cradling her newborn son, during their escape from the massacre ordered by King Herod. This is no stylised, airbrushed Madonna, but an image of a mum, barely recovered from the ordeal of childbirth – someone who has trekked for miles to a foreign country, leaving everything behind, all for the sake of her child. Thoma breathes realism into the biblical story. There is no glory here, no divine truth or comfort. Yet in spite of the physical and emotional hardship of the situation, this mum still holds tight to her baby boy, making sure he is warm, safe and loved.

Woman with Dead Child

Woman with Dead Child 1903

Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945)

A first glance at Käthe Kollwitz’s Woman with Dead Child may leave the viewer uncertain of what they are seeing. Slowly, a picture emerges: a woman, hunched and heavily shaded, clutching the lifeless body of her young son. The harsh, sketchy treatment of the figures gives the work a desperate energy. As a mother herself, Kollwitz accesses another aspect of motherhood in this work: the impossibly deep, almost animalistic love that comes with being a mum. This etching foreshadows Kollwitz's own terrible experiences as a mother, and the ultimate fear of any parent: the death of a child. This is a part of motherhood so profound that it can barely be expressed in words, and is perhaps more easily understood through art. This poignant image became a reality in 1914, when Kollwitz lost her son on the battlefield in the early days of the First World War.

Motherhood is an impossibly complex subject and these works give just some of the ways mums are depicted in art. Perhaps though, the 'real mums' in art give a far better reflection of the diverse and intricate emotions of being a mum than the stylised approach to motherhood often encountered in religious paintings. Whether 'ideal' or 'real', mums have played a crucial and often overlooked part in art over the centuries, and deserve to be celebrated and studied.

Helen Record, Arts Society Collections Intern at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts