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Depictions of Fatherhood in Art
Get inspired 06 Jun 2022

Depictions of Fatherhood in Art

famous father paintings
Giorgio de Chirico, The Painter’s Family, 1926

According to the times, the culture or social circles, the image of a father figure has seen an astonishing evolution. Sacred, it was sometimes glorified and transcendental. Profane, it could just as well remain discreet, even absent from artistic representations. However, it sometimes symbolizes the filial dimension of unconditional love. For Father’s Day, Artsper offers you an overview of the most outstanding famous father paintings!

Famous father paintings depicted through the sacred

From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the Holy Family and the Holy Trinity were the main representations of fatherhood. Spiritual and religious, they refer to a divine father who transcends all forms of life. Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo and El Greco have particularly nourished this Christian image of the father in art. In parallel to a creator and all-powerful god, the figure of the adoptive father, embodied by Joseph, is also imposed. Unlike the divine father, this fatherhood is full of humility and unfailing loyalty. This father protects, nourishes and educates with care, without expecting any recognition. In the 16th century, the emblematic figure of Joseph was rejuvenated. This character embodies a form of provisional fatherhood, one that replaces divine fatherhood on earth. He thus takes up the torch of protection, while being a fervent defender of the faith.

The Holy Family Canigiani
Raphaël, The Holy Family Canigiani, 1506, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The secular image of the father: a transmission of knowledge and wherewithal

Unlike images of motherhood, fatherhood is often represented through the transmission of knowledge or goods. Two figures clash and feed off each other: the patriarch as head of the family and the father as teacher. Whatever the subject, he educates his son by transmitting what he himself has learned through his place in society. The peasant teaches his son to work the land. A craftsman teaches a specific know-how. The aristocrat passes on reading, hunting, the use of weapons or diplomacy. These paternal images thus convey a double-edged relational system. On the one hand, a bequest that ensures the son the possibility of establishing his own family and passing on patrimony in turn. On the other hand, a socio-economic pressure that can seem impossible to overcome under a crushing weight.

Some father’s paintings show a protective and proud fatherhood. This is the case, for example, in Veronese’s Portrait of Joseppo da Porto with his son Adriano. Father and son are shown as accomplices, Joseppo da Porto swaggering from the simple fact of exposing his offspring to the world. The figure of the father thus crystallizes the notion of heritage: genetic, certainly, but above all cultural and economic. For all that, it leaves aside a whole part of fatherhood. Focused on gendered reproduction, these father’s paintings do not show them in the company of their daughters. These representations of fatherly love were therefore mainly intended to maintain a filial and patriarchal system.

famous father paintings Paul Véronèse
Paul Véronèse, Portrait of Joseppo da Porto with his son Adriano, 1555

The father in contemporary art: An eluded fatherhood

The most troubling thing about the representation of fathers in contemporary art is its rarity. At first glance, fatherhood seems absent. However, on closer inspection, it does appear in different forms. The image of father is treated in an indirect, allusive, masked or diverted way. The most recurrent figure is that of the artist father, whose creative force is doubled. It is expressed through his child and his art, mainly through several approaches. The artist can evoke these concepts through portraits of the family or images of fatherhood as the teacher. Finally, we can see images of father and son which make the biological filiation artistic.

famous father paintings Rashid Johnson
Rashid Johnson, Fatherhood as Described by Paul Beatty, 2011

Famous father paintings: Somewhere between glorification and rejection

Representations of motherhood in art are numerous, like those of the family. The only exception to the rule is the figure of the father. Sometimes glorified in its divine version, its profane declension also serves for the reproduction of a social and political system. Transmission, filiation, patriarchy and social reproduction are therefore frequent themes in the art of fatherhood. On the other hand, other forms of paternal representations seem to be ignored. Art deconstructs motherhood and what is associated with it again and again. While the image of the father struggles to follow this movement, it is still very largely a minority, caricatured, even omitted.  However, from time to time, we see the glory of father as protector, provider and creator in art.

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