10 Favorite Mothers in Art

A Mother's Day Special

Art loves us mothers. We've been depicted countless times in every culture. Sometimes we are as goddesses, sometimes we're seen enjoying a tender moment - a sweet memory, really - from when our all-too-quickly-grown children were very young, and sometimes it's clear that motherhood is grueling, if rewarding, work. In my modest, but heartfelt, attempt to salute fellow mothers everywhere, these following favorites are offered in reverse order.

10. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Temptation (1880).

What a lovely scene. The temperature is nice and warm, the grass has been mown, apparently we're not worried about potty training just yet, and mother and child are free to simply enjoy each other's company. I'll admit it: I like the Academics, and Bouguereau in particular.

9. Pablo Picasso, Motherhood (1965)

In my humble opinion, the single least latently hostile portrayal of the opposite sex that Picasso ever executed. Who knew he had such a tender side?

8. Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1888)

Painted by Vincent from a photograph, Mrs. van Gogh appears to be gamely giving her son a small smile. He has given her eyes and brow a somewhat troubled look, however. When the picture was taken, was she worried about, and thinking of, that troubled boy of hers? Mothers do tend to worry, after all.

7. Diego Rivera, Sleeping Family (1932)

Social Realism is a genre that often reminds me I have much for which to be thankful. The mother in Rivera's lithograph can only offer her child the shelter of her arms and the use of her lap as a pillow. These things aren't the same as food or having a roof overhead, but she has given all that she can, and it was good enough to lull a small child into the comfort of sleep.

6. Frederic, Lord Leighton, Mother and Child (With Cherries) (1865)

Leighton has painted us a gorgeously detailed look at a Victorian interior. Isn't it marvelous that these two can while away the hours eating cherries? Obviously, there are servants lurking somewhere in the background. No sane mother - without her own laundress - would sit around dressed completely in white, with a child dressed similarly, eating a fruit known to leave such nasty stains.

5. Paula Modersohn-Becker, New Mother (1907)

Paula was very optimistic about having a baby, even though she was stuck in an unhappy marriage when she got pregnant. She painted this shortly before giving birth to the child she didn't survive by more than three weeks. It's a testament to mothers everywhere that we give birth not just to humans, but to hope for a brighter future and the betterment of humankind.

4. Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath (1893)

We can't discuss "mothers and children in art" without mentioning Miss Cassatt, can we? I never cease to marvel at the way she caught tenderness and concern in the mothers she painted, and love the serenity in this scene of an everyday occurrence.

Oh dear. The things we mothers are called upon to rectify. Isn't it a blessing that Mr. de Hooch never witnessed the millions of mothers who have tried to catch kid vomit in their bare hands? No amount of muted interior lighting could make that into an attractive painting.

2. Dorothea Lange, (1936)

The woman in this picture was 32 years old at the time it was taken. She and her seven children were living off gleaned vegetable seconds (the fields having already been harvested) and birds the children were able to kill. She had just sold the car's tires to get food money. I am told she and the children survived this grim period in their lives. In the present era of "prosperity" she still has a shameful number of sisters in spirit - women who spend every waking hour trying to keep body and soul together.

1. Clement Hurd, illustrations from The Runaway Bunny (1942)

Though I have read this book approximately 84,000 times (to children who weren't nearly as sleepy as I was), it still makes my eyes well up with tears. Hurd helped the Mother Bunny morph into a fisherbunny, rock, gardener, tree, circus performer and the wind - all in the name of a mother's steadfast, unconditional love. Maybe these illustrations will never rate as "fine" art, or hang in museums, but they will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Happy Mother's Day, all, and have a carrot on me.