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The art of mother: Juliet Heslewood's 'Mother: Portraits by 40 Great Artists'

Mothers are, historically, good sports.

And nowhere is their good nature better illustrated than in the just published Mother: Portraits by 40 Great Artists by Juliet Heslewood (Frances Lincoln Limited, 96 pages, $19.95). The author has gathered a wide sampling of moms portrayed by their famous (or semifamous) offspring, arranged chronologically beginning with Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and ending with Tom Phillips (1937- ). In between are masters including Rembrandt, Picasso, Chagall, Kahlo and Constable. And, of course, Whistler's most famous mother. The late 19th and early 20th centuries have the heaviest representation because of the huge shift in opinion about "appropriate" subjects for fine art. Portraits of mothers and family scenes in general gained more respect at that point.

Throughout the book, we see a panoply of personal attitudes and professional styles. And we're tempted to inject our own psychological narrative into some of them.

Is it incipient madness — or just a twinkle — in the eyes of Vincent van Gogh's mother?

What kind of a son would paint his materfamilias as a dour cubist blockhead, as did Fernand Leger?

And tweet to Lucien Freud: painting your mom and naked girlfriend in same room — r u nuts?

Heslewood, however, sees no malice in these depictions. She found in her research that most artists were quite fond of their mothers.

The majority of works are straightforward and respectful interpretations. Sometimes we sense that the artist chose the sitter and scene because both were so available, familiar and, in most cases, beloved. And, of course, free.

The author offers no generalized insights into artists who paint their mothers, giving each an individual essay accompanying the portrait. The introduction also provides more examples, including some painted with fathers noting that they, for whatever reason, have been of less interest as subjects.

She concludes that, in the end, if artists did not "get on" with their mothers, they didn't paint them. Let that mental list lead you where it will.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293). She contributes to the Critics Circle blog at

Abrecht Durer (1471-1528)

Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Charcoal on paper, 1514

The great northern Renaissance artist was famous when he sketched his 63-year-old mother. A German, he had traveled extensively, especially to Italy, and knew many of his peers, including Leonardo and Raphael. He had completed some of his most famous paintings by 1514 and several series of prints. Durer's fascination with human anatomy was unflinching, even here, recording the physical evidence of Barbara Durer's hard life: married at 15, bearing (reportedly) 18 children with only three surviving. She died several months after the portrait was made.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Tobit and Anna With the Kid

Oil on panel, 1626

Rembrandt painted himself as himself many times. Here, as in other early works, he uses his mother as a character in a religious narrative, the Apocrypha story of the innocent wife accused of stealing a kid by her blind husband. He was a young man when he completed it, a prodigy whose talent was such that he was sought after as a teacher even by established artists.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

Madame Ingres

Pencil on paper, 1814

French neoclasical painter Ingres considered himself the guardian of traditions against upstart romantic painters (especially Delacroix). His artistic gifts, both in art and music, were recognized early and he received formal training. His fame was some years away when he drew his mother, but it bears out his belief that "drawing is seven eighths of what makes up painting." It was done in Rome, where he was studying, during a brief visit she made after the death of her husband.

Edouard Manet (1832-83)

Mme. Manet Mere

Oil on canvas, 1863-66

Manet is often called the father of impressionism. The French artist had his share of controversy in breaking new ground. His unidealized nudes in everyday settings shocked many as did his loose brush strokes. This portrait is more restrained. His mother's black widow's weeds were fortuitous since Manet was an ardent student of Spanish painters, notably Velazquez and Goya, and their skillful use of the color. In this portrait, though black predominates, Manet gives it many different tonalities.

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)

Girl at the Piano

Oil on canvas, 1868-69

Cezanne's prickly personality made him an outsider even with fellow artists who admired his work. This double portrait of his mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Marie, is unlike the landscapes and still lifes of his mature work. Still, it has the seeds of his analytic approach to composition and a hint of his masterful use of perspective as a shifting ground. That the quote "Cezanne is the father of us all" is attributed both to Matisse and Picasso provides some measure of his reputation.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84)

Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Oil on canvas, 1877

The artist developed stomach cancer not long after this portrait and, on the advice of his doctor, his mother took him to Algeria. She cared for him until his death in Paris. Bastien-Lepage's friend Auguste Rodin created a large bronze statue of him which later graced the family tomb in which he and his mother are buried.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94)

Portrait of Madame Caillebotte

Oil on canvas


This is called a genre scene because it shows a person in a domestic setting. Celeste Caillebotte was a gifted embroiderer and she's seen here, needle and thread in hand. The Caillebottes were well-to-do; you can see marks of luxury in the bronze candlesticks, marquetry table, marble and gilt. His family's fortune enabled Caillebotte to buy the work of his contemporaries, which he willed to the state on his death. Those paintings are among the finest impressionist works at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

The Artist's Mother

Oil on canvas, 1888

Gauguin did not become a full-time painter until he was in his 30s, and he had little formal training. Unlike most artists, Gauguin painted his mother as a young woman, using an old photograph for inspiration. Scholars believe it was painted during Gauguin's brief and tumultuous stay in Arles with Vincent van Gogh. It has an air of exoticism which the post-impressionists favored, presaging his famous Polynesian-inspired works.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)

Anna Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus

Oil on canvas, 1888

This portrait was painted during van Gogh's most fruitful period, when he lived in Arles and was inspired by the Provencal countryside. Like Gauguin, he was a late starter, becoming a full-time painter in 1880. Van Gogh preferred painting from life, but he used a photograph sent from his family in the Netherlands as the basis for this painting of his mother. It was also during this time that his mental illness reached a breaking point. Though his career was brief, it was intense; he created about 900 paintings in a 10-year period.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Soft ground etching and aquatint, 1889-90

Cassatt's conservative American family had tried to discourage her career; she once tore up a portrait of her father after a quarrel. But when this was painted, good relations had been restored for some time. One of the greatest influences on her mature style was Edgar Degas, who also introduced her to etching — her proficiency in that medium obvious in this work. The popularity of Japanese prints among impressionists is also seen in the simplicity and clarity of her composition.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

The Artist's Mother Sleeping

Pencil and watercolor on paper, 1911

The Austrian expressionist artist is well known for his provocative nude self-portraits and those of women, also highly sexualized. This painting seems unusually discreet. Yet his mother sleeping — and unawares we assume — seems voyeuristic on his part. We can also see the influence of his mentor, Gustav Klimt. He died during the influenza epidemic that killed about 20 million Europeans. He was 28.

Eric Wilson (1911-46)

Portrait of the Artist's Mother

Oil on canvas, 1937

Eric Wilson is probably the least-known artist in this book, yet the portrait of his mother earned the cover spot. You can probably see why. It's so real. The Australian artist was trained conservatively. After applying numerous times, Wilson won an art scholarship in 1937 using this work as one of the entries. The money allowed him to travel to Europe, where he began experimenting in abstraction. But this is probably his masterpiece, honest but obviously loving.

The art of mother: Juliet Heslewood's 'Mother: Portraits by 40 Great Artists' 05/06/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 10, 2009 8:13am]
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