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Icons of Motherhood at the MAAC

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1," colloquially known as "Whistler's Mother," (1871) by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Musee d'Orsay, Paris. Source: wikipedia.org

For many of us, the earliest way we expressed our appreciation on Mother’s Day was with handmade gifts and cards resplendent with glitter and crude hearts. As children, most of us didn’t create works of lasting value (except to our mothers) but the impulse to celebrate the maternal through art is shared by mature artists across all periods and styles. Perhaps the most celebrated American example is the painting best known as “Whistler’s Mother,” a portrait of the artist’s mother. Whistler simply considered it “an interesting picture of [his] mother” but in the U.S., the portrait quickly became an icon of motherhood and filial love. In this post, we share a few of our favorite depictions of motherhood at the Center.

African Senufo wood figure of a seated mother and child, Ivory Coast.  Height: 33 inches

African Senufo wood figure of a seated mother and child, Ivory Coast. Hemingway African Gallery.

A matrilineal peoples, the Senufo often carved powerful maternity figures to represent the  mother deity of their society. Such figures were used in ceremonies like divination rituals where the deity spiritually “nourishes” the divinity initiates and protects the community.

Russian Icon "Vladimirska" mother and child, oil on wood with silver Riza/Oklad, Old Russia, c. 1890-1900.

Russian Icon “Vladimirska” Mother and Child, oil on wood with silver Riza/Oklad, Old Russia, c. 1890-1900. Alter Silver Gallery.

Icon painting was adopted in Old Russia from Byzantium following its conversion to Christianity in the 10th century. By far the most prominent type of icon depicted the “Mother of God,” the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, as in the delicate one above.

Porcelain group of foo dog puppies playing with their mother, China, 20th Century.Porcelain group of foo dog puppies playing with their mother, China, 20th c. Angela & J. Gallery.

Ancient Chinese guardian lions, commonly known as “Foo Dogs” in the West, were stood in front of buildings for mythical protection. Pairs of male and female lions are still commonly used as entrance decoration, with the female lion shown restraining a cub on its back to represent the nurturing element. Above is a modern take on this symbol.

Pottery group of a mother cat and kittens on original wood base, artist signed and kiln marked, French, circa 1880.

Pottery group of a mother cat and kittens on original wood base, artist signed and kiln marked, French, c. 1880. Hoffman-Gampetro Gallery.

Charming groups of mother cats with kittens were a popular sculptural subject in 19th century France. See another such group depicting less unruly feline offspring here.

Pair of Meissen porcelain figure groups depicting The Good Mother and Father, German, circa 1880.  Pair of Meissen porcelain figure groups depicting The Good Mother and Father, German, c.  1880. Bella Antiques.

Rambunctious offspring were a common motif as well in German Meissen porcelain figural groups of “The Good Mother,” as in the one above. If you still haven’t found the right way to thank your mother for all her years of patient care on Mother’s Day this Sunday, gifts for all tastes abound at the Center; you can browse our categories here.