The first official Mother’s Day holiday was observed in the U.S. in 1908, but celebrations of mothers date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who honored goddesses who were mothers. Depictions of mothers range from images of Aphrodite and her son Aeneas on a terracotta vessel to Baroque paintings featuring the Virgin Mary to contemporary works that comment on the artist’s relationship with her own mother.
To explore the vastly different ways artists have interpreted and represented motherhood, we took a closer look at how three vastly different artists tackled the topic: 15th-century German artist Martin Schongauer, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, an 18th-century painter greatly influenced by his years spent in Russia, and 19th-century post-impressionist artist Georges Seurat. We spoke with Getty curators to discover these artists’ unique views of motherhood.
Madonna and Child in a Window
Themes of motherhood have frequently been explored through depictions of the Virgin Mary and Christ. In this painted panel, German artist Martin Schongauer portrays mother and child in a tender moment, as she serenely holds a manuscript as he playfully grabs the pages. The panel belongs to a small group of four surviving paintings by Schongauer, many of which depict themes about the Virgin Mary.
Anne Woollett, Getty curator of paintings, said Schongauer is portraying a specific theme in devotional painting: the Virgin as the tutor of Christ, which is part of an established tradition of emphasizing her role as both mother and teacher.
Woollett pointed out that Schongauer emphasizes Christ’s youth, with his nudity, blonde baby curls, and wiggling fingers and toes. Yet the artist also alludes to Christ’s maturity and future responsibility by depicting him raptly engaged with the book and its text. In this scene, the mother is portrayed as the ultimate representation of faith, as she passes on her wisdom to her son.
“He interprets this theme of the Virgin as mother and teacher in an intimate way: the painting itself is very small and painted with extreme delicacy and detail, which invites the viewer to look at it closely and observe the specific elements (and admire the artist’s technique!),” said Woollett. “He also achieves this focus by situating the Virgin and Christ child at a narrow stone window. A remarkable, diaphanous angel holds a scepter and crowns the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. The Virgin envelopes Christ in her arms as he is seated on a tasseled cushion, protects him, and as the model of Faith, instructs her son.”
The Russian Cradle
In this 18th-century painting by French artist Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, a peasant family gathers around a baby, cozy in a cradle hanging suspended from a tree. Le Prince focuses on the love of a family towards its newest addition, with a larger emphasis on an idealized version of parenthood and family.
Le Prince served in St. Petersburg at the court of Catherine the Great from 1760-1762, and during that time he traveled extensively throughout Russia, gathering inspiration for paintings such as The Russian Cradle. This painting is probably somewhat romanticized, as peasants in real life were unlikely to have the “leisure time” they appear to be enjoying here.
Scott Allan, Getty associate curator of paintings, said the painting exposes ideals about love between family members and the importance of connecting to nature that were popular at the time.
“The Russian Cradle’s ethnographic details – the peasant costumes, the rough-hewn timber buildings, and the ingenious hanging cradle – lend an exotic veneer to a scene that very much reflects contemporary French sensibilities, and new notions of familial love and the nurturing of infants that emerged from the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, and that are in many ways still with us today,” Allan explained.
The painting was exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon, which was a series of exhibitions of artwork sponsored by the French monarchy. Viewers would have noted the bucolic representation of nature and family life and perhaps been inspired by the clear love among them, as romanticized as it might have been.
“That the peasant family is presented in an idyllic rustic setting and paired with happy animal families – a goat with her two kids and some tranquil sheep – underscores the message that they are living in a virtuous state of nature, one that was meant to be instructive to Le Prince’s highly cultivated viewers in Paris,” Allan said.
Madame Seurat, the Artist’s Mother
Best-known for the pointillist painting technique used in his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat also produced hundreds of drawings throughout his brief life (he died in 1891 at age 31). Emily Beeny, Getty associate curator of drawings, explained that Madame Seurat is typical of the artist’s draftsmanship, in both subject and style.
Seurat dined with his mother, Ernestine Faivre Seurat, every night, often drawing her after the meal. In contrast to Le Prince’s work, which commented on ideals of motherhood and family, this depiction of motherhood is deeply personal, focusing on the special relationship Seurat had with his own mother. The drawing also exemplifies a principle that Seurat called “irradiation”: juxtaposed light and dark tones heighten each other and produce a striking luminous effect.
“When you look closely at the drawing of his mother, you see it contains not a single line, just conté crayon (a greasy modern cousin of charcoal) applied in a velvety gradation of tones from black to gray to the white of the page,” said Beeny. “He used rough, ‘toothy’ Michallet paper and the side of his crayon, varying the pressure to deposit more or less of his dark medium on the pale support. Thus the forms of the face seem to swim out of the darkness. It’s like a magic trick.”
With her plain black clothing, downcast eyes, and serene expression, she appears to be an unassuming figure. And yet, her soft form seems inviting, and comforting. Seurat still conveyed a sense of respect and admiration for her not only as a mother but as an individual as well.