The archetypal ‘Madonna and Child’ is perhaps the most iconic vision of the tender bond between mother and child embodying the sacrifice and heartache characteristic of the role. In the Western Art canon, Mary, the hallowed Mother of God, is joined by a cast of mother figures leveraged for the symbolic power of their maternal virtues. In the 18th and 19th century Britannia, represented as a warrior goddess, she became a personified emblem of British national identity.
In response to changing social attitudes to the destructive realities of imperial expansion and colonisation, Britannia (and by extension the reigning monarch Queen Victoria) was re-positioned as ‘Mother of the Empire’ - a powerful, unifying, and nurturing force presiding over her ‘family’ of diverse cultures and nations.
In the mid 19th century, artists grew more interested in capturing life as it was lived day-to-day without artifice and fantasy. The burgeoning genre of Realism depicted everyday people, settings and labours as well as unfettered human emotions in all their tenderness and despair.
What was once perceived as inferior subject matter was illustrated in precise and authentic detail at a scale previously reserved for the idealised characters of narrative and mythology, and the glory of church and crown. As a result, the role of women in the nurture of children and communities was made visible, thus offering a counterpoint to previous representations of women in art.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s sought to raise consciousness about gender oppression and challenge traditional gender roles. In the following decades the personal became political as women artists continued to expand the visibility of their lived experiences through their art, adding nuance and breadth to the way women and subjects like childbirth and parenting were represented in visual culture.
Sidestepping and in some cases entirely subverting common tropes and traditional classifications, they made pointed critique of the patriarchal forces and social expectations on women’s bodies, behaviors and choices and fixed notions of motherhood. Along with writers and other creative thinkers of the era, among many things, they opened up space to acknowledge the physical and psychological aspects of raising children, both positive and negative.
Mothers hold a potent place in personal and collective understandings of ourselves, societies and communities, yet across history artistic depictions of motherhood have often been pigeonholed, dismissed as sentimental or caught up with religious allegory. Drawing on the joy, grief, anxiety and chaos of motherhood and maternal relationships, contemporary artists remain fascinated by the primal exchange of raising another life and it’s creative potential. While the experiences of white, Western, cisgender mothers have been the most visible in our Euro-centric public art collections, contemporary artists continue to embrace the many intersections of life and art to expand portrayals and understandings of motherhood, family and kinship across broader visual culture.