How do you sum up motherhood in a picture or a phrase? There are over 400 elegant attempts in The Art of Motherhood, a new book from Getty Publications that pairs paintings and sculptures with words from authors as diverse as Dante Alighieri and Dorothy Parker.
Mothers, writers and artists can all agree, are about love. “A mother’s love triumphs over all difficulties, and perceives no impossibilities,” says novelist Cornelia Paddock.
Mothers are about power, too—to shape a child’s view of her world and herself. “The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face,” asserts English physician D. W. Winnicott. “It is at our mother’s knee,” writes Mark Twain, “that we acquire our noblest and truest and highest ideals.” (Although he can’t resist adding: “but there is seldom any money in them.”)
Many of the artworks in the book present children at their most tranquil, mothers at their most doting and angelic. Witness a 17th-century portrait of a mother with her nine—yes nine—perfectly behaved children (plus a dog and a bird), or Mary Cassatt’s tender portrait of a mother lovingly bathing a squirming toddler.
But make no mistake, moms put up with a lot. “A child will never know all the troubles he has caused his mother,” a Chinese proverb reminds us. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson quips: “There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him asleep.”
Abundant putting-up is on display in this portrait of an impromptu family concert around the dinner table, complete with recorder-blowing toddlers and a singing grandma. The mother smiles bravely, eyes drifting off to her happy place. (Noise? What noise?) Patience worn thin, by contrast, is captured in Nicholas Maes’s lively portrait of a naughty drummer, whose mother, exasperated, can take the pounding no more.
So moms aren’t perfect. But whether the duchess of Florence or a young immigrant in New York, they make the best of it. And of you. “A mother is not a person to lean on,” sums up Dorothy Canfield Fisher, “but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” If you’ve learned to lean on yourself, you likely have a mom to thank this Mother’s Day.