Last weekend, we attended so many weddings we had to keep going right the way through Monday too. This weekend I’m going to follow the happy couple through the birth of their first child, recognising that may well be rather later in real time.
Central to our basic biological drive to reproduce our species, birth and its success means very different things to the mother and father, and there have been great changes over the relatively recent history of mankind. Until well into the twentieth century, maternal and infant mortality rates were so high that for many mothers successful delivery was deliverance from probable death. For the infant also to survive longer than hours or days was something of a miracle, although at least they were unsuspecting of their poor prospects.
Fathers risked little, though: however deep their emotional involvement with their wife, it wasn’t their life on the line. When it came to ceremonies such as christenings, mothers attended with a profound sense of relief that, with the grace of God, they had survived another pregnancy of the many they would be expected to endure.
Children weren’t just to prolong the species or inherit whatever worldly wealth a couple might possess, but they, and their children, would be relied on to care for the (grand)parents if they were fortunate enough to live into their later years.
In today’s article and tomorrow’s I look at a small selection of paintings showing mothers and the infants in those first few days and months, whether attending that christening, feeding, or just being together. You’ll not be surprised that many of these were painted by women, and may see some interesting differences from those by men.
The archetype of almost all these European paintings is the immensely popular motif of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. That in itself has changed considerably over the years, from early icons to the Renaissance, the development of Raphael’s lifelike and intimate Madonnas, and again into the late nineteenth century with Virginie Demont-Breton’s contemporary reinterpretation in her undated Alma Mater. She looks very young, and there is no sign of Joseph, just her obviously holy infant lying swaddled on her lap. Around her are the weeds of waste and derelict sites. Is she yet another homeless single mother?
Early paintings of the blessing or christening of infants seem quite uncommon, but Lavinia Fontana’s of Saint Francis of Paola Blessing the Son of Louisa of Savoy (1590) also gives an unusual insight into the history of France and the Catholic Church. Louise of Savoy (1476-1531) was the Regent of France for three periods from 1515, and the mother of King Francis I of France. Fontana shows her bringing her second child, born in September 1494, to be blessed by Saint Francis of Paola (1416-1507), a mendicant friar who founded the Order of Minims, an early vegan group who considered themselves to be the “least of all the faithful”. This would have happened in the royal residence at Château de Plessis-lez-Tours, in the Loire Valley of France. Louise’s son, being blessed here, was to become King Francis I of France.
One of the finest paintings of any church ceremony is Harriet Becker’s Christening in Tanum Church from 1892, which deservedly brought her fame when it was shown the following year at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Backer places the viewer inside the church, looking both outward and inward. The left of the canvas takes the eye deep, through the heavy church door to the outside world, where the mother is bringing her child in for their baptism. The rich green light of that outside world colours the door and its wood panelling, and the floorboards and perspective projection draw the baptismal party in.
At the right, two women are sat in an enclosed stall waiting for the arrival of the party. One has turned and partly opened the door to their stall in her effort to look out and see them enter church. Backer controls the level of detail and looseness to brilliant effect, ensuring that we always see just what she wants us to, enough to bring the image to life, but never so much that the eye is lost in the irrelevant. From the new grandmother accompanying her daughter and grandchild, past the elderly man standing just inside the doorway, to the two women sat in the pew, and the wonderful rich colours of the church interior – it’s perfect, her masterwork.
One of the earliest naturalistic paintings of a mother and her infant is Giorgione’s revolutionary landscape The Tempest from just after 1500. Is there some narrative involving the mother nursing her infant at the breast and the rather fashionable young soldier stood on the opposite bank of the stream, or are they just elaborate staffage?
François Clouet’s rather risqué Lady in Her Bath from about 1571 gives us insight into how the other half lived. Next to the rather demure woman in her bath is a wet nurse feeding the second child of this affluent family – a sadly not uncommon practice.
Benjamin West’s group portrait of The Artist and His Family from about 1772 gives insight into his peculiar circumstances. It shows, from the left, the Wests’ older son, Benjamin West’s wife Betsy, cradling their newborn second son in her lap, Benjamin West’s brother Thomas, and father John (who had been born in England), and standing in his lavender gown, holding palette and maulstick, is the artist himself.
Often compared with a traditional Nativity scene, it was described at the time as a “neat little scene of domestic happiness”. But looking at the directions of gaze, and the extraordinary detachment of Thomas and John West, who are staring into the distance, domestic happiness seems even further away.
One of the few male artists who reveals much insight into the ordeal of birth is Ford Madox Brown, in his incomplete painting Take your Son, Sir! It’s thought that Brown started work on this in 1851, although it clearly shows his second wife Emma with their newborn son. Their first son, Oliver, wasn’t born until 1855, and their second, Arthur, in September 1856, which would suggest that Brown didn’t start this until at least 1855. It’s generally held that this shows not Oliver, who lived until 1874, but Arthur, who died aged ten months in July 1857, at which time Brown abandoned the painting.
It’s also interesting for the detail seen reflected in the mirror, which shows a contemporary living room and a man, presumably a self-portrait. This is reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434). The artist’s wife appears to be pale and flushed, as if the labour wasn’t free of incident either.
The third painting in Louis Janmot’s epic series Poem of the Soul is curiously titled The Angel and the Mother without reference to its real subject, the baby. This is set by the Lake of Moras, where the mother sits with the newborn soul on her lap. Its guardian angel is kneeling in prayer for the mother and the soul of her new child. This painting combines the images of the annunciation to the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, in a unique way.
With the rise of social realism in the middle of the nineteenth century, the mothers and infants of the rural poor became popular themes.
Jules Breton’s Mother Feeding her Baby (1863) is one of the most gentle and touching of his portraits of country people, showing a mother, wearing clogs and clothing which has seen better days, feeding a very young baby in front of a frugal fire.
Giuseppe Sciuti’s marvellous depiction of The Joys of the Good Mother, also known as The Geography Lesson, from 1877, deserves to be better known. Three children from a close-knit family are seen feeding at mother’s breast, learning to read with her, and (with the assistance of a nurse in traditional dress) learning about their country. This mother clearly had precious little time to devote to her youngest.
Themes of homelessness entered literature and other arts. Among Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema’s generally genteel, indoor scenes is an exceptional view of the outdoors: With a Babe in the Woods (c 1879-80), which explores the popular Victorian theme of the young, homeless unmarried mother.
In her early career, Virginie Demont-Breton (daughter of Jules Breton) specialised in painting mothers with their young children. Her First Steps (1881-2) was exhibited at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles in 1881, although dated 1882, and again in the Salon in 1882.
Mothers and their young infants are also featured in larger groups in Naturalist paintings, including Léon Lhermitte’s famous The Harvesters’ Pay (1882). In the centre of the painting one of the workers is counting out his pay in front of his wife, who is feeding a young infant at her breast.
It was Fernand Pelez who was most devoted to documenting the destitute families of the day, here in his Homeless, from 1883. Ironically, those who flocked to view it at the Paris Salon that year would have passed by similar destitute people without noticing them.