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Depictions of Motherhood in Art
Get inspired 02 May 2022

Depictions of Motherhood in Art

motherhood in art
Annie Leibovitz, Demi Moore, 1991, © Vanity Fair and Sotheby’s

Throughout the ages and artistic movements, the figure of the mother has taken all shapes and sizes. She was at first divinized for her fertility, glorified as the Virgin Mary, symbolized by her role as nurturer. It was a flawed yet idealized image which would brutally evolve into the 20th century.  Since then, the liberation of the depiction has grown every day.  Here is brief overview of the representations of motherhood, just in time for Mother’s Day.

From the virgin with child to the taboo of the pregnant woman

Mariotto di Nardo
Mariotto di Nardo, La vierge et l’enfant avec six saints, around 1396, Museum of Petit Palais, Avignon

In the history of Christian art, the Virgin and Child is the most represented subject. Already present, it pervades painting and sculpture of the Middle Ages. It is then carried to its peak during the Renaissance. The greatest artists of the time, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, multiplied the works of the Virgin and Child. Devoid of any erotic character, this woman symbolizes protection, gentleness and devotion. But it is an unlikely and unattainable model for any woman, as this biblical mother is represented as a virgin. To further this fallacy, at this same time, representations of pregnant women were disconcertingly rare. Until the 18th century, the image of pre-maternity, judged far too sexual, shocked Westerners. This may seem absurd when one considers that the female nude was always a universal artistic practice.

Motherhood in art of the 18th and 19th centuries: a timid realism

motherhood in art
Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Woman, 1905, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Over time, the ubiquitous Virgin Mary gradually begins to give way to other representations. The 18th century opens the way to a less divinized, more carnal mother. This trend was initiated in 1786 by artists such as Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, who painted several self-portraits with her daughter. The evolution of the maternal figure follows its course throughout the 19th century, then less chaste, but still idealized. Painters such as Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne or Joaquin Sorolla represent motherhood in a joyful, delicate and tender light. In the early 1900s, Gustav Klimt broke with this sublimated maternal model. He painted The Three Ages of Women and Hope. Life rubs shoulders with death, candor dialogues with eroticism, and feminine strength dances with vulnerability.




From the 20th century to the present day: deconstructing the myth

Reticent Child, Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, Reticent Child, 2003

Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Annie Leibovitz, Annette Messager – these are a few of many artists who tried to change the representations of motherhood in the 20th century. In her poignant work on the horror of miscarriage and abortion, Frida Kahlo addresses for the first time the difficulties of maternity.

For her part, Annette Messager addresses these issues in the 1970s. In Les enfants aux yeux rayés and Tout sur mon enfant, she highlights the injunction to motherhood. Through this collection of photos of babies, she speaks of the anxieties and imperatives that accompany the role of a mother.

In 1991, it was photographer Annie Leibovitz who threw a heavy stone in the pond.  She started quite the ripple with her nude portrait of a pregnant Demi Moore.  On the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, the image was so shocking that some newsstands refused to sell it.  Was Annie Leibovitz aware of the rupture she created by exposing maternity in its simplest form: raw, natural and powerful?

Later, it is Louise Bourgeois who approaches motherhood in art with an innovative look. She paints the good and the bad mother, the painful childbirth, the anguish of motherhood, the mother-child relationship. Her famous sculpture Maman highlights the complexity of such a subject. The immense spider symbolizes the nourishing and protective mother, as well as her destructive and intimidating character. An ambiguity that also echoes very ancient representations, such as the sculpture Coatlicue, the Azetc Mother Goddess.  This goddess of fertility was both the mother of all life and a voracious monster. Through her work, Louise Bourgeois spreads a new representation of motherhood in art, ambivalent and realistic.

motherhood in art
Awol Erizku, Beyoncé, 2017 © Awol Erizku

Motherhood in art: when the intimate becomes political

The representations of motherhood in art have long been divided between the taboo of reality and the purity of the sacred. Until the 18th century in the West, it is the overwhelming figure of the Virgin Mary that prevails. The 18th and 19th centuries marked a new turning point: the image of carnal motherhood had evolved. With rare exceptions, the mother is glorified and shown as the ultimate symbol of gentleness, the creator of life. Then the 20th century brings a tsunami of demands. Finally, representations of motherhood break out of their shackles, voices are raised and illusions are shattered. An intimate and political art, it still has many surprises as it continues the necessary work of deconstructing myths.