History, Topic of the Past

Expressing the Essence of Motherhood Through the Portrait

mother and child portrait

“When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait”.

–Pablo Picasso

Importance Of Mother and Child Portrait.

The importance of the relationship between mother and child has been expressed in art throughout history. In the book Mother: Portraits by 40 Great Artists Juliet Heslewood has assembled a collection of art which expresses the essence of motherhood through the mother and child portrait.

In addition to being a favorite subject of artists, the relationship between mother and child has been considered sacred by many religions. Examples of art utilizing this theme date back as far as the 13th century B.C. The artistic form of the mother and child portrait enjoyed an increase in popularity with the advent of Christianity, which gave rise to Madonna art, which depicted the sacred relationship between the virgin Mary and the Christ child. The popularity of the mother and child portrait continues to this day. Mother and child portrait art even has its own Wikimedia page.

Portraits by artists of their own mothers are common. Being a new father himself at the time, between 1921 and 1923, Pablo Picasso painted a dozen works that focused on the mother and child portrait. Other artists who have painted portraits of their mothers include Rembrandt, in 1629, Cezzane in 1897, Whistler in 1871, Andy Warhol in 1971, and Tracy Emin in 1994. Artist Mary Cassat painted mother and child portrait series that celebrated the role of women in their children’s lives.

In the past, only wealthy families could afford to commission the services of an artist. Today, it is possible to commission an artist for a family portrait for as little as $500.00. There are also websites like A Stroke of Genius, and the American Society of Portrait Artists which provide contact information for mothers who may want to commission a mother and child portrait of their own. Rather than the family of subjects having to pose for long hours as they did in the past, today’s artists are able to work from photographs.
In the Victorian era in America, shortly after the invention of photography, the mother and child portrait often didn’t include the mother. Instead, the mother’s task was to hold the child still to avoid the photo being blurred while excluding herself from the portrait. In many of these “family” portraits, the mother’s head is completely covered, and only her hands are visible.

Photographer Linda Fregni Nagler assembled a collection of over a thousand such “family” portraits into a book titled The Hidden Mother. While sociologists cannot be sure of the reason for this phenomenon, one possibility is that mothers felt they were not valuable enough to even appear in photographs, but existed entirely to be of service to their husbands and children. Happily, after 1900, mother and child portrait art included mothers.

With today’s technology, anyone with a smart phone can create a family portrait. For those with little experience with photography, there are many articles that offer tips and tricks. Rather than posing stiffly and smiling, as most people did for family portraits in the past, portraits that reflect the personalities and favorite activities are becoming more popular. Many include family pets some even include family members’ favorite musical instruments.

Modern family portrait photographer Steve Wrubel specializes in what he calls “story pictures“. He creates a series of photographs that reflect “how a family or individual lives in this exact moment”. In portraits of the past, personality could only be reflected by expression, clothing and background. Today’s portraits can involve lighting, props, and elements of fantasy as well as reality.

While customs, social mores, and forms of artistic expression may change, creating family portraits that demonstrate and celebrate the special relationship between mother and child will likely endure until the end of time.

mother and child portrait
The Artist’s Mother Seated at a Table, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631
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