With art often providing an outlet for human experience, it’s no surprise that maternal relationships and motherhood as a general theme has been explored by many artists in multiple ways.
Being a mother is a complex job and here you’ll find a selection of artists who have explored the topic either by depicting their own mothers, creating self-portraits of themselves in the role, or capturing intimate moments between mothers and children known to them. Taking the form of painting, photography, and sculpture, discover some of the most famous mothers in art.
The Sick Child (Around 1663 - Around 1664) by Gabriël MetsuRijksmuseum
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 is perhaps better known by its colloquial name, Whistler’s Mother. Created by James McNeill Whistler in 1871, the subject is the artist’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. It is often called the Victorian Mona Lisa as it’s one of the most famous works by an American artist outside of the United States.
Whistler’s mother posed for the painting while living in London with her son in Chelsea and there are several unverified stories about the work. For instance one is that Anna acted as a replacement for another model who couldn’t make the appointment, and another says that Whistler envisioned the model standing up, but that his mother was too uncomfortable to pose upright for that long. The painting now belongs to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris and remains an icon for motherhood.
Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871) by James Abbott McNeil WhistlerMusée d’Orsay, Paris
This oil painting depicts the everyday activity of a mother bathing her child. Cassatt was inspired by the compositions of Japanese woodblocks and these traditional prints often employed a flat perspective, using bold patterns and outlines. Cassatt adopts this approach through the overhead vantage point and with how the bold fabric patterns of the mother’s dress contrast with the child’s milky skin. Through the unusual, elevated perspective Cassatt invites us to observe the scene before us but not participate in it, highlighting the intimacy between the woman and child.
The Child's Bath (1893) by Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926)The Art Institute of Chicago
Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 18th century
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is touted as one of the most important artists of 18th century France. She was known for depicting the evolution of French society, but Brun also explored the bond between mother and child in her work. The most famous example of this is her own role as a mother in two paintings with the same title, Self Portrait With Her Daughter, Julie. The first was painted in 1787 and the second in 1789.
In this iteration Julie, Brun’s daughter, is pictured embracing her mother while both subjects look on at the viewer knowingly. It’s a warm-hearted portrait and the artist was inspired by the Madonna paintings of the High Renaissance. While today the work is appreciated for its compassionate portrayal of motherhood, initially the works caused controversy because Brun painted herself smiling and open-mouthed, which went against traditional painting conventions.
Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie (1780-1819) (18th Century) by Louise-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842)Original Source: Paris, musée du Louvre
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California by Dorothea Lange, 1936
Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer and photojournalist, and her images of the Great Depression cemented her position as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. This image, titled Migrant Mother has become one of Lange’s most iconic pictures. It captures migrant pea-picker, 32-year-old Florence Thompson, with three of her children.
When the photograph was taken, the farm crops had frozen and there was no work for the homeless pickers. Thompson sold the tires from her car to buy food, which was supplemented with birds killed by her children. The image is made all the more powerful by Thompson’s unrelenting stare and Migrant Mother became a symbol of strife and fortitude to millions of other Americans at the time. After this image was taken Lange informed the authorities of the plight of the pea-picking camp and they sent 20,000 pounds of food.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 (1936/1936) by Dorothea LangeBarbican Centre
Ritratto della madre by Giorgio de Chirico, 1911
Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico was close to his mother and in between his travels he often stayed with her and painted her portraits. Chirico’s mother was called Gemma Cervetto, a baroness from Genova who married Evaristo, a Sicilian of noble origins. In this painting Chirico depicts his mother with an absorbed gaze set against a blank sky and little other background detail. This gives the portrait an ambiguity and contrasts with the detail he’s gone into on his mother’s dress.
Ritratto della madre (1911) by Giorgio de ChiricoLa Galleria Nazionale
Maman by Louise Bourgeois, 1999
Louise Bourgeois was a multimedia artist but she’s probably best known for her sculptures, which range in scale from the petite to the monumental. At almost nine meters tall, Maman is one of the artist’s most ambitious series of sculptures and have the spider as their subject.
The spider motif is intended to be a tribute to Bourgeois’ mother, who was a professional tapestry restorer. It’s a contradictory choice as a symbol of maternity though, as the spider can be both protector and predator, embodying both strength and fragility. The ambiguity is strengthened by the humongous scale of Maman, which hovers over the crowd, perched on legs so tall they’re like Gothic arches.
Maman (1999 (cast 2001)) by Louise BourgeoisGuggenheim Bilbao