Clio Talks Back: Happy Mothers, Grieving Mothers

by Mary Cassatt
Among women artists who have depicted scenes about motherhood, two particularly stand out in Clio’s mind: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926 ), an American from Philadelphia who resided for much of her life in Paris where she painted with the Impressionists, and Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), who was born in Königsberg (then in East Prussia, now part of Russia) but lived primarily in Berlin where she was identified with the Naturalist school. Both are ranked among the greatest artists of their time.

By Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt, a woman of means, never married nor had children of her own (because she thought marriage and children would interfere with her career as a painter). Yet she seems to have thought a lot about motherhood; some of her finest paintings are tender, benign private scenes of well-dressed mothers, seemingly unmarked by unhappiness or political turmoil, gazing at, touching, and tending to their well-fed, healthy-looking, almost sensuously delicious babies. Her paintings are colorful and, at first glance, sweet. Yet, Cassatt’s early biographer Achille Ségard, insists that she was a “painter of children and of mothers,” rather than of the romanticized joys of motherhood.

Käthe Kollwitz, on the other hand, did marry. She bore two sons while continuing to pursue her artistic career. She worked in various media, including etchings and bronze statuary. Her works of art are somber, full of shadows and blackness.

by Käthe Kollwitz

Kollwitz’s depictions of motherhood are poignant; they bear the mark of an intense social consciousness of poverty, deprivation, and death. The loss of one son who was serving in the German army in World War I undoubtedly exacerbated this tendency. Her concern for the fate of the poor and unfortunate, particularly mothers attempting to protect children or mourning dead children, was magnified by the political, social, and economic turmoil that ensued in the wake of the lost war, compounded by the ominous, overhanging threat of yet another war. In 1922 she wrote: “There has been enough of dying! Let not another man fall!” . . . and she quoted from Germany’s great poet Goethe, “Seed for the planting must not be ground.”

by Käthe Kollwitz
Kollwitz’s impressive bronze, Tower of Mothers, a work completed in 1938 – just as the shadow of war once again hovered over Europe – has inspired a contemporary poet named Gail Peck to publish the following meditation:
Today their hearts are stone,
these mothers who’ve created
a fortress with their bodies,
their children peecking from the folds
of skirts. One mother has her bare feet planted,
another has her fist in the air.
No, they shout at marching boots,
planes overhead. Nothing can get
to the children now – what kind
of game is this they ask?
It has no name. 
Clio’s question: Throughout history, mothers have repeatedly nurtured and tried to protect their children, to keep them safe from the ravages of poverty and war. Why has it been so difficult for mothers and others to triumph over those dark forces of destruction? Why can’t all children have a beautiful future, like the children of the mothers in the works of Mary Cassatt? Why do some nations continue, even today, to “grind” their seed for planting rather than planting it?

Further reading: 

Griselda Pollock, “Mary Cassatt: The Touch and the Gaze, or Impressionism for Thinking People,” in Women Impressionists (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2008).

Martha Kearns, Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Artist (Feminist Press, 1976).

Elizabeth Prelinger, et al., Käthe Kollwitz (National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Yale University Press, 1992).

Gail Peck, “Tower of Mothers,” Wild Goose Poetry Review, posted Nov. 10, 2011.