History, Topic of the Past

On Mother and Child Portraits: A Future Foretold

mother and child portraits

Importance Of Mother And Child Portraits

Author and historian Juliet Heslewood studied the history of art at London University and earned an MA in English Literature at Toulouse. She led study tours of art and architecture in France for over 30 years. Her book entitled The History of Western Painting: A Young Person’s Guide was translated into 12 languages. For modern parents and posterity, she has assembled a collection of mother and child portraits in her book titled Child: Portraits by 40 Great Artists, which received several positive reviews.

A review in the Telegraph offers several examples of some of the most emotionally moving mother and child portraits featured in the book. Through these exquisite paintings, she helps illustrate the social changes in the view of childhood throughout modern history. Among the examples highlighted are those of Victorian painter George Dunlop Leslie, whose mother and child portraits can be compared to those of Lucian Freud, who painted a hundred years later.

Leslie’s frequent paintings of children successfully portray the attitudes and realities of English girlhood during that historical period. Viewers may learn as much about the social mores of the time as about how Victorian parents wished their children to be viewed. Painter John Everett Millais, a founder of the pre-Raphaelite movement, deviated from the Victorian style in what many considered a subversive manner. In his painting of his wife Effie, she is depicted asleep, with her hat off.

The advent of photography reveals another of the customs of the time. In one photograph of what appears to be two girls with their long hair in braids facing one another, it is revealed that one is actually a boy. In that era, boys didn’t have their hair cut until the age of ten, unlike modern times, in which a boys and girls are differentiated by the length of their hair at at a very young age.

One artist’s portrait of himself and his young daughter illustrates the difference in relationships between children and their fathers and those of their mothers. In much of mother and child portrait art, mothers are depicted educating and caring for their children, while in Carl Larsson’s Brita and Me, he is depicted playing joyfully with his daughter, even while working. This is in keeping with the division of labor in modern parenting in which women are the primary caretakers and the father’s role was viewed primarily as financially supporting and playing with the children. This view has since been challenged.

A modern exhibition of mother and child portrait art brought together the works of esteemed photographer Diane Arbus and painter Alice Neel whose contrasting styles reflect their views on the nature of childhood. The popular exhibit featured Arbus’s work from the 1960s and several of Neel’s paintings done from the late 1940s through the early 1980s.

Viewers were able to compare the differences between the conventions of mother and child portrait art in photography to those of painting. The power of personality, both of the subjects and the artists is illustrated in the works of these artists who are renowned for their skill in depicting children. Similarly, both artists, rather than simplifying children, portrayed them in their full complexity as unique individuals and future adults. Although both are considered expressionists, each has a distinctly original style. Another similarity between them was that both included twins in their collection of mother and child portraits.

Despite the similarities, Neel’s work was more optimistic and her subjects portrayed as colorful and self-aware. Many of her mother and child portraits are painted indoors, and their lives colored by their warm domestic surroundings. Arbus’s depictions of mother and child portrait art tend to be more bleak, perhaps made more so by the lack of color in black and white photography. Further, much of her mother and child portrait art was photographed outdoors suggesting both a greater vulnerability and a lack of protection.

Although the two artists have different outlooks, their portrayals of children in mother and child portrait art reveal the extent to which children are affected by the world of adults. Despite the concept of childhood, and the attempts of parents to create a separate and protected world for them, the works of these artists reveal the perhaps unrealistic desire to shield children from the realities of adulthood.

There have been mother and child portraits in art since artistic expression was confined to the walls of caves. Whatever technological advances are made, the sacred relationship between mother and child will likely continue to be portrayed in mother and child portraits throughout future history. However, we may hope that, like Carl Larsson’s portrait of himself with his young daughter, that artistic tradition may one day expand to include the equally important role of father and child. The children of the world deserve no less than both parents being equally involved, and therefore honored by art, for their roles in creating the future for us all.

mother and child portraits
Alice in Wonderland by George Dunlop Leslie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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