Woman in Art/Chapter 21 - Wikisource, the free online library
"MOTHER AND CHILD"
Mary Cassatt, Painter
Responsibility and Opportunity, Mary Cassatt, Painter of Mothers and Children; Pathos In Motherhood.
"Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eyes:
In every gesture dignity and love."—Milton.
Did you ever think of the touch of poetry and home life that comes to us out of the past, out of the ancient prophecy of Micah? It concerns the peace of these latter days, "when they shall sit, every man under his vine, and under his own fig tree."
The present condition of the Holy Land today, after warfare, and a painting by Dagnan Bouveret, brought the quotation to mind. It was the custom in the days of Micah to arbor the flat-roofed dwellings (rarely more than one story high) with gourds or grape vines, and to train the fig and pomegranate trees to the wall of the house, even to the lattice that extends to the latticed roof, making the living room of Summer beautiful and cool from the hot sun of that country. The lower branches of such trees gave a grateful shade at the door, and pots of brilliant flowers in the deep window recesses added their beauty to the oriental home that the prophet may have known in his day.
In this setting the modern artist has painted a mother of two thousand years ago, as true of that time as it is today, where modern influence has not set its hand. The Jewish mother, her baby in swaddling clothes, is walking back and forth under the grapevines of her home, as mothers of this Western world still put their little ones to sleep. It is bad practice for both, but oh, they do love it! The cool, green shade under the leaves and clustering fruit, the fresh softness of the mother's gown, form a natural bit of the poetry of art. With the fleetness of vision we come to a French mother teaching her twin blessings to walk in a flowery meadow, where bright colors woo the toddlers from flower to flower, one wavering and uncertain step at a time. Born to a different tongue and climate, they will develop all functions common to all humanity; their first effort at speech may be in any language, barring entirely that of their parents, for environment and example from the beginning will make or mar the future man or woman.
Mme. Virginia DeMont-Breton is the sympathetic painter of "The Twins." Motherhood, common to all countries, children, and painters, may be of varying characteristics, but mother-love is the same.
M. Giron has painted a Swiss mother with an armful of future citizenship. He is taking the nourishment nature provides, and seems not at all concerned with the high cost of living; nor does he realize that he is in a neutral country. The picture is a bit of realism, and technique does not disturb its value.
The sea-faring folk of France and Holland make good wives and faithful mothers, even to this age of divorcements. They were the first women in Europe to mother the orphan and the aged. There is a deal of heavy fog and rain, anxiety and sorrow over-hanging the fisher folk of Holland; their is a precarious calling, but Volkenberg has found entrance to many a sunlit room. The furnishing is simple, but the spirit of contentment comes to you out of the picture. Little sister at the foot of the cradle is drawn to the pink and white baby sleeping, just seen above the blanket. The mother's fingers are busy, and we doubt not her thoughts are, too.
Seldom in this modern day does an artist paint for religious reasons the Madonna and Child, but Louis Vaillant has a distinguished canvas entitled "Madonna of the Laurel." It might be merely a portrait for she certainly seems a Madonna of the home, there being no trace of a churchly picture, just a sweet and natural mother and child. Such are the thousands of Christian Madonnas in this Anno Domini 1927.
Intelligence comes rapidly to the developing child. Sir Joshua Reynolds depicts this in one of his portraits of a mother and her son. Lying in her arms, the babe is reading the spirit of the mother in her face as she tells him the love stories that only a mother can. The little spirit absorbs from her look, her smile, her frown, before the young brain can take in a word. To illustrate with a word-picture that proves the truth, although the child was able to use a few words.
In a living room hung a large copy of Hoffman's "Christ in the Temple with the Doctors." Facing the boy Christ sits a member of the Sanhedrin in deep and perplexed thought, his finger on his lip as he listens with wonder to the words of the boy, but do you know the face of the Rabbi? A tiny girl about two and a half years, singing a wordless happiness to herself, climbed upon the couch under the painting to play amid the soft pillows. Soon her eye caught the face of the Boy, radiating a sort of spirit-light as he talked. After a little, touching him with a dainty finger, far as tip-toes enabled her to reach, she lisped to herself, "Pitty boy, I loves oo, I loves oo," and baby fashion danced up and down as she studied the face. Then her eye lighted on the sober man. The song ceased, the happiness went out of her flower-like face as she slowly pointed her finger at him. Then with a deep sigh she said, ever so softly, "Poor man, poor man! He's so sorry—so sorry." Do you get the psychology of a Jewish Rabbi of two thousand years ago?
Every artist has his specialty, not only of subject, but of some one thing he does better than anything else. Bougureau's special delight and success was in flesh tints and shadows—illusive as wind-chased cloud and shadow, with glow and warmth in sunlight, and cool tones like tints of a sea-shell in the shadows. He began with the most difficult of models—babies. Not a line anywhere, all curves, creases, and dimples, chubby hands and feet, a hint of cream and rose in the skin, of cherry red in the lips. Hands, feet, and brow full of prophecy, wavy hair that defied a brush, be it mother's or the painter's. A babe Bouguereau painted was asleep; it was the only way he could be satisfied. It is unconscious beauty, and over the helplessness the mother keeps "Watch and Ward."
An artist of such exquisite skill as Bouguereau possessed painted many Madonnas, cherubs, children, and beautiful women. Two of his Madonnas are of peculiar loveliness: "Madonna of the Lamb," and the "Madonna of the Stream," They are very alike in treatment; one can hardly choose between the two. They impress one as being more refined in features than some painted in earlier centuries, but one reason may be they are modern women, the type of woman we are accustomed to, and the setting is a bit of nature our eyes are familiar with. They do not invite devotion, they do not arouse mother love, they bring no message of uplift. They speak of the superior technique of the artist, and of the lovely women he secured as models.
But motherhood has to do with more than Madonnas and babes. Babes grow up. Children under twelve years of age are the most vital members of the human family. They are too restive and energetic for purposes of art, for they are perpetual motion with the ubiquitous "Why?" ever on the tips of their tongues.
Mary Cassatt, who attempted to portray the "Modern Woman" on the walls of the Woman's Building thirty and more years ago, was more prophetic than she realized when depicting young women and girls in outdoor sports and pleasures. There was no suggestion of domesticity on that tympanum, only pleasure, health, and the tempting vision of fame were indicated; a marked contrast to the tasks imposed on women by the necessities of primitive times, as depicted by Mary MacMonnies.
Miss Cassatt had accomplished meritorious work before the Columbian Fair. She was a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., born in 1845. She not only studied in Paris, but France had a lure that kept her there many years. From 1874 her pictures were accepted at the Salon, and from 1878 they were to be seen in the National Academy of Design in New York, and in Boston. The characteristic scenes in France and Spain had a charm that furnished her with subjects she loved to paint. "At the Theatre," "The Music Lesson," "After the Bull Fight," and figure-pictures found their way to many galleries and private collections.
In spite of travel in the art-blessed countries of Europe, and her absorbing of technique studied with Monet and Renoir, it was the forceful personality and broad humanity of Degas that influenced her work. He recognized in Miss Cassatt a strong spirit and absolute sincerity, a mind of broad scope and originality. In maturer years Miss Cassatt painted almost entirely women and children. Some familiar canvases are "The Bath," "In the Garden," "Playing With the Cat"; "The Mother's Caress" of her two-year-old daughter comes nearest to having an indescribable charm. The little one is on her knees on mother's lap and the mother holds her close, as the dimpled fingers press her cheek and the baby eyes seem to read the mother-love—seriously.
In such intimate subjects Miss Cassatt was at her best. Such is the beautiful message of her art to the world, the love and confidence of mother and child.
"Mother and Child," from the American Exhibition of Art in Berlin, accents this message, for the child is older, and there is more of understanding, and love is deeper. "Breakfast In Bed with Mother" is a picture of absolute content, sitting close to mother within her enclosing arm, dimpled knees, pink toes, some breakfast in each baby hand. It has a charm that anything more of detail in the painting would have marred. It is one of the very best, broadly painted yet with thought and brush centered on the little one, so happy to be with mother. Modernism or impressionism or any other ism, nor what painter or school does the brush-work resemble, none of these enters into one's enjoyment when looking into the sweet picture of life. It is an influence left to an art-loving world from which the artist has passed on—June 20, 1926, at Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, a suburb of Paris.
Not Art alone, nor her large circle of friends, but the world has lost a fine woman, a splendid artist, and one of the best interpreters in her chosen subject, the beautiful and everyday life of Mother and Child.
Since the death of Mary Cassatt, the friends of American Art throughout the country have arranged loan exhibitions in various art centers, and it was surprising and interesting to know what large collections of her works were owned in the Middle States and in the far West and East. It was a significant appreciation of the artist, and no less of the subject of her choice during the latter years of her life—Motherhood and the Child.
The Memorial Exhibitions of the works of Mary Cassatt brought together a number of paintings from private collections not familiar to the general art lover, hence they invited an unusual interest. The portrait of Miss Mary Ellison was one of exceptional beauty, character, and at-homeness that put you at once on the list of Miss Ellison's friends, without question as to the technique or school of the workmanship. The group "On the Balcony" is one of those instantaneous pictures from life. Two form the company, and the third is conscious that she is the crowd and that, by inference, is in the street. A native charm pervades the group. The portrait of the "Mother of the Artist" is a reflection from life as she sits in meditative mood, and the compositon is all one would ask the face expressive of serene, thoughtful motherhood, after the heat and burden of the day. It is a portrait that is a charming picture.
More than once the writer has been asked how it is that a "Bachelor Maid" can talk to mothers about mothers and children. There are several answers to the question. Mothers are sometimes very young and need the advice and experience of an older woman. Again, a bachelor maid has usually taken time for study and preparation for her life-work of helpfulness and uplift, be it as teacher, mother's helper, nurse, or companion, plus practicalities and common sense. But the greatest, truest answer is that the genius and instincts of motherhood are deeply implanted in every woman by the Creator Himself; if he does not need her to serve in one capacity he does in another.
Abastenia St. I. Eberle has given a pathetic expression of this truth in one of her inimitable statuettes, which she calls "Playing Dolls." The little waif, out at the toes and otherwise unkempt, too poor to have a real doll, cradles on her arm a gourd squash, lavishing on the substitute doll the affectionate caressing that appeases, in a sense, her heart hunger that indicates innate motherhood. A poignant, pathetic prophecy (?) of her future.
Look at a statue in marble of "Her Son." It has made a young American woman famous. She wanted to portray the soul of motherhood. Note her success. Her babe has grown out of her arms; he is a stalwart boy at her side. Her guidance as his mother has lifted his thought, awakened his wonder; her love has lifted his heart to the Invisible who is all love, all wisdom, the Author of his being who, supplementing the mother influence with the Divine, will be the Master Workman to shape his life and his destiny. One cannot look upon the group without recognizing that Nellie V. Walker, in the medium of marble, has portrayed spirit with surprising vividness.
I am sure there are some among my readers who can recall the time—can't you?—when you fell in love with your own mother. I knew a little boy—he is over six feet now—but when he was six years old he came in from play one day and, leaning against his mother's knees, began to tell her an experience with another boy, something he did not like. He was looking intently into her face as he talked, and his story came more and more slowly. Suddenly he broke off in the midst of a sentence, climbed into her lap, put rather dirty hands on her cheeks, and looked. Then thoughtfully he said, "I didn't know you were such a beautiful mother! Why, I love you 'way down to my toes." And reverently he kissed her eyes and her lips, and sliding from her lap walked slowly around her chair and, coming again to her knee, gazed into the tender face and, straightened to his full height, said, "I'd like to be a man for you!"
Young women, God grant that sometime you may have the supreme blessing of being reverenced by your son. Such mothers and such sons would give us a new world.
There is a painting true to the life and suggestive of the generation that is passing. Again we have one of those Rembrandt backgrounds, for it is a deep twilight effect. You can just discover the window through the delicate curtains, and the blooming plant on the sill. The mother is at the piano, and the gleam from the one candle lights the faces of mother and daughter. With one hand she accompanies the old song, the other is about the listening child. It is the sweet refrain of an old, old song to the mother; it is just a lovely experience to the little girl. How do I know? Because I have lived that same delight, leaning against my blessed mother as she sang to her little girl, sang sweeter songs than I have since listened to,—"The Loved Ones at Home," "Life on the Ocean Wave," "Give Me a Cot in the Valley I Love," "Strike the Harp Gently," "Schubert's Serenade." Yes, it was by candle light or fire light. Do not forget the power of association. Sing to the children, sing with them, sing the songs they love, of "the snow-bird sitting close by on a tree," sing of the "Naughty Kitten," sing of the "Morn Amid the Mountains," of "Angels Ever Bright and Fair"; teach them the "Merry, Merry Bells," till they grow up to the angel trio "Lift Thine Eyes," "Come Unto Me, All Ye That Labor," till they have the best and will not brook any other.
Tell them stories, exquisite stories of folk lore. True, there are more books, charming books for children than ever before. No stories delighted us children more than those that came in answer to our eager importunings, "Oh, tell us about you when you were a little girl, grandmother."
Such stories are the connecting links between the past and the future. Our forests vanish into lumber, and the smoke of home and forest fires; radiators supplant the big fire place, and piped gas or oil has crowded out the fragrant beech and hickory logs, and the rich moss has ceased to wrap itself on the north of the leafless trees that sway snowy branches as you pass under them. There is to be less and less of rich experiences and yearly happenings. Art is doing much but not enough, not enough of the best. There is need of the human touch, human sympathy, the real must electrify the heart and imagination.
"Little Mothers" are a great institution; while helping mother in caring for the younger children they are being educated. "La Papillon" (The Butterfly), by Alfred Guellon, was one of the attractive paintings in the Paris Salon a few years ago. She was a little mother of France before the dreadful war. She has taken the baby into the pasture to relieve the busy mother indoors. Chickens and geese are wandering yonder, picking for their living—as if they knew that feed was five dollars a sack; a sheaf of grain is the baby's bed and sister is a good knitter, a motherly accomplishment. Could you see the soft pink that sleep has tinted on the baby face, you would not wonder that the hovering butterfly had mistaken its beauty for a flower. Sister has forgotten her knitting, watching to see if La Papillon alights on baby's cheek.
Motherhood is a generic term, like leaves, flowers, or fruit. No one can tell how many kinds, how many colors and tints, there are. So with gleanings from art, like gathered flowers during a ramble by garden, hedgerow, and upland, one gathers for the beauty or helpful power each may have.
"Margaret Donegan" was a new discovery in art, a few years ago. You would not take her for an art motif, although William Starkweather, the artist, did. We have chosen her to prove that there is no caste in motherhood. Motherhood and love are universal; they are first aids to the Creator in the continuing and fulfilling of His eternal plan and purpose concerning the development of man.
Margaret Donegan was a studio scrub woman, at her work, but she was a mother and greatly impressed with a vision of her son that made her pause in the act of cleaning the floor. She seemed to see him dead, received into heaven by Christ and the Virgin. Dimly seen in the background is the artist working at his easel from a model. Both are oblivious to her pause from her work, her hands resting on the handle of her mop as she gazes straight ahead, her eyes wide to the vision her mind sees. The mental picture is seen above the clouds that screen the work-a-day world from the spirit or thought world. It is perfectly natural for a mother about her work to visualize her boy. Something may have happened.
The picture is old Spanish in style of painting—the clouds being the division between earth and heaven, as we find it in Raphael's "Transfiguration" and the "Ascension." In spite of her humble life, or perhaps because of it, she is a true type of mother.
Three of the world's great masterpieces we place in sequence: "The Immaculate Conception" by Murillo; "Holy Night" by Correggio, (also called "Nativity"); "Sistine Madonna" by Raphael. These perpetuate in art the message from heaven to earth, from God to man. The message of promise; the message of; the message of love, of pity and forgiveness. To carry the sequence further, we may add "The Descent from the Cross" by Rubens, and "The Resurrection," also by Raphael (now in the Vatican), as perpetuating the message of sacrifice and the assurance of life after death.
The body must be sacrificed to gain spirit life, for it is given only for the uses of earth. After that there is a spiritual body for use in the spirit realm.
All art is so truly of the spirit that its expression in thought and material is manifold. There is no one definition, save that Art is the effort of man to express in some form the result of his thought and spirit through his creative instinct. From lowest to highest—according to the measure of a man—there comes, first, the longing for something better than he has known; second, the feeling after it; third, the vision of it; fourth, the thought of how to do it; fifth, the spirit to make it vivid; sixth, action; and the balance, to make the work of his hands measure up to his conception of its spirit value. When all is said and done, what is its value? There is the influence of it on himself or herself. There is the influence on the beholder. Be it mechanical invention, a Tribune Tower or a painting great with spirit like the Sistine Madonna its influence is long—centuries long.
"What is man that thou art mindful of him?" asked the Psalmist, and he continues, "Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor." Made in the likeness of the Creator, all mankind are His children, and He has given His offspring such a body as pleased Him.
We marvel at the fleeting glory of the sunset; at the beauty and texture of flower creations; at the color and brilliance of gems exhumed from the clay or rocks where they have been hidden for aeons; at the canyons and waterfalls undiscovered in remote corners of the earth through untold milleniums, the while from their height and volume has roared the tremendous diapason of God's symphony of Nature.
"He hath made all things beautiful in His time."
Nothing so exalts the soul of a young mother, as she looks upon her own child for the first time, as the desire to mould that little life toward splendid manhood or womanhood. If she carries her best efforts, prayers, and example continuously, a better world will reward the mothers of the world. The fulfilling of prophecy, the fulfilling of God's plan for the uplift of humanity, and the coming of the spirit kingdom on this earth—for which Christ taught us to pray—all, all depends upon You, God's helpers as the Mothers of men.