In light of Mother’s Day recently, I’m revisiting artwork of mothers and children. This relationship is on my mind a lot as a new mom myself, but also because I was gifted this wonderful book of poems for Mother’s Day from a close friend:
Written by Vicki Rivard, the poems land like small, soothing balms to cracked hands. They are sometimes shockingly short. I kept nodding along to the words. Yes, THIS! This is what I need to hear! This is exactly how I feel too! Here’s one example:
the baby rocks the mother too.– epicenter (from Brave New Mama by Vicki Rivard)
her whole world,
I think of this poem when I look at Berthe Morisot’s painting Le Berceau (The Cradle).
This is my own picture of the painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’m trying to remember what I liked about it enough to snap this photo back before I knew what this earth-shaking experience was like. Maybe because I could recognize a sacred moment: the sleeping babe and the mother who has eyes for nothing else but her child. She is enraptured with this creature, but now I wonder if there is perhaps doubt and fear and anxiety there too. What mother doesn’t cycle through all the emotions?
Mother and child are each other’s worlds. Enmeshed. Interconnected. Morisot shows this by having the mother (Morisot’s sister) and baby make the same gesture with one of their hands: rest it by their face. This creates a diagonal line between mother and child. As the Musée d’Orsay describes in the link above, the diagonal line is further emphasized by the angle of the curtain in the background. In her other hand, the mother holds the bassinet’s veil, putting a screen between the viewer and her child. I love this subtle but powerful gesture. It says everybody out; I’ve got a baby to learn.
Another mother/child Impressionist painting that been a long-time favourite is Coquelicots (Poppy Field) by Claude Monet. This painting is also found in the Musée d’Orsay and like The Cradle, it has a strong diagonal composition. The diagonal runs between the mother and child pairing in the background to the one in the foreground. They are the same mother and child, Monet’s own wife Camille and their son Jean.
I’ve always thought it was a bold move to portray the passage of time not through changing scenery but through human movement. Mother and son enjoy a leisurely walk through a poppy field, starting on the crest of a hill. By the time they reach the base, the mother has opened her parasol and her son has picked a bouquet. The viewer’s brain fills the space and time in between, imagining their stroll: boy running ahead a bit, stopping every so often to pick the poppies; Mother getting warm, relishing her son’s delight with the flowers, how they are almost as tall as he is, how he has grown so quickly. Wasn’t he just a baby? Oh what they say is true, I know now: the days are long, the years are short.
It’s impossible to think about mother and child paintings without at least one of the Virgin and Christ Child coming to mind. I saw more of them than I ever wanted to in The Louvre, many with golden halos and unrealistic faces. But that’s not the case with The Virgin and Child drawing by Raphael that I visited in the British Museum last spring.
I marvel at Jesus’ fleshy plumpness and think good job, Mary! And good job Raphael—you made him look human. Jesus’ stance is so babylike, leaning in to his mother, his safe place, unlike many Virgin and Child paintings that make Jesus look like a grown man—stiff, formal, and wise beyond his years. Here, he looks like a regular baby. But of course he’s not just a regular baby. Mary cradles him but her eyes betray that they are somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the future and what makes her son different.
The curator of the British Museum writes:
The slight turn of the Virgin’s head away from her child and her lowered eyes eloquently convey a sense of the burden she has to endure, her thoughts clouded, even in moments of such intimacy, by the knowledge of her son’s fate. Such telling details give the composition a psychological depth not found in the quattrocento sculptural models on which it is based.– British Museum website
Back to Impressionist depictions of mothers and children, I turn now to an American, Mary Cassatt, who has a painting that rifts off Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Christ, such as the one above.
This painting, titled Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) is at The Met in New York. The curator writes:
Here, Cassatt underscored the importance of the maternal bond by evoking religious art. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo.The Met website
The contrapposto stance originated with the Greeks but is famously depicted in Michelangelo’s David. Contrapposto means “opposite” and refers to the way one leg carries most of the weight, while the other is bent.
Unlike Raphael’s drawing, Cassatt shows an older son looking away, while the mother’s gaze is fixed on her child. While Cassatt’s painting lacks the psychological depth that Raphael’s and Morisot’s have, I appreciate that Cassatt elevated the mother/child relationship, recognizing that these tender, ordinary interactions are important and worthy of being immortalized on canvas.
In a similar way, I am doing this (or attempting to) with my writing. Being a mother has given me a new range of experiences to process through words. I wrote one such poem called “they say you will teach me more than I will ever teach you” when I was pregnant and had the pleasure of finding out this past week that it was the winner of a poetry contest put on by Pulp Literature. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she is old enough to understand.
You can hear me read the poem on the video below—the announcement of being runner-up comes at 23:54 and my reading at 42:26.