The Powerful Vision of the Maternal Gaze
By Marianne Rice
It is a topic frequently brought up in interviews with female artists, and seldom with their male counterparts: “How do you manage family life and an art career?”
When it comes to the discussion of balancing an art practice and the domestic affairs of a family, women are faced with two antithetical perspectives; the long held notion that motherhood is incompatible with an art career (she must abandon her art for the important work of raising her family) or the opposing view, where she is encouraged to keep her life private and must abandon her identity as a mother to seriously pursue art.
Faced with these meager options, some contemporary artists are embracing more multifaceted identities, allowing the impact motherhood has on their lives to inform their art and their careers. This perspective acknowledges the unique challenges faced by female artists with children; there is a cost to raising a family, measured in units of time, energy, and focus. In the end, even if our productivity is slowed for periods of time, it is still a worthy endeavor and worthy of representation. Allowing the maternal lens to inform our work provides an important perspective, a creative energy, a broader vision, and a greater understanding of humanity.
Women like Cecelia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Coffin, and Ellen Day Hale considered themselves the “New Women” of the 19th Century. They were allowed career opportunities and education denied to women of previous generations, they were well-trained, successful, and chose not to marry or have children. Their career choices helped move women into the traditionally male spheres of the art world. Beginning with pregnancy and the sleep deprivation of infancy, to C-section recovery, nursing, and postpartum depression, there is no question motherhood poses unique challenges to the female artist.
Even among highly educated, dual-income families with egalitarian views of sharing the domestic workload, women still bear a greater burden of child-rearing and household tasks. My own merging of the two identities has not been a simple process, with the daily weighing of choices, placing them in order of importance; a seemingly impossible task, as it’s all important. A late blooming artist, I was 40 with my youngest in school before I began painting. My family had already established our income through a business that I managed from home, while I was the primary caretaker of our four children. Now at more independent school ages, I am able to work in my basement studio from school drop-off to pickup. This is challenging during the fast-paced twelve weeks of summer, where we make room for work and play in shared spaces. The anguish caused by the push and pull of two powerful forces–the desire to create and the desire to be a mother–feels like the unspoken dilemma of the female artist’s experience.
The subject of motherhood itself has been reflected in art for centuries, often idealized or presented as archetypes like the Madonna and Child. It has been explored by brilliant artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bouguereau, and Mary Cassatt. One may wonder, ‘what could possibly be added to the topic?’ But, the closeness to the subject and familiarity experienced by the contemporary artist-mother displays profound wisdom. Through the voices and artistic vision of the contemporary female artist-mother, we can begin to shift the lens of motherhood from one of scarcity (like time, energy, and creativity) to abundance; not an obstacle to the creative, but a source for the creative.
Hettie Judah, in her writing about the impact of motherhood on artists’ careers, said, “It has become unacceptable to ask a successful woman in any career how she balances domestic and working life... sometimes in the right context these forbidden questions become important, and in failing to ask them, we end up maintaining the very structures that make it hard for working parents to thrive.”
For those who choose motherhood, there may be seasons where productivity is hampered by the needs of a family. But income, longevity of career, and product output have never been accurate markers of quality or impact of an artist-mother’s career. A woman’s life in the arts is only expanded by our depth of experiences. We shouldn’t squander it by thinking that our contributions and creativity are diminished by our productivity and not expanded by our depth of life experiences. Offered at the altar of the easel, through the powerful gaze of the maternal, the artist bestows her visionary gift.
1. Adrienne Stein, The Gift, 2022, 48x30", oil
2. Mary Sauer, Expectations, 2024, 60x48", oil
3. Anna Rose Bain, Motherhood, 2016, 30x20", oil