Elevate Difference

The Artist's Mother: A Tribute by History's Greatest Artists to the Women Who Created Them

The artists featured in The Artist's Mother share three confounding commonalities. First, they paint; second, they have mothers; and third, they have painted their mother’s portraits. (Hope you’re still with me.) Apparently, this last trait was the key criterion for inclusion in this nifty thirty-six artist collection. Portraits appear in chronological order by the painter’s date of birth, making the arrangement educational as it shows the evolution of styles and customs through different artistic periods.

The essays that accompany each painting are well written and taken from various historical works. Rich in research, they share stories full of intimate family details. Judith Thurman, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who in the 1980s won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction for “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,” penned the introduction.

On the cover of the book is a painting known as "The Mother", and although this portrait of his mother made him famous, James Abbott Mac Neil Whistler was not too fond of it. "Arrangement in Grey and Black" was how he coldly referred to it. And against his wishes, the painting became a symbol of graceful and dignified aging and a flag for Mother's Day in Britain first, and then all over the World. This greatly frustrated a particularly smug Whistler, because what he really wanted was for critics to celebrate his careful technique.

Some of these paintings have a very self-portrait-like feel, maybe because of the close relationships that most of the artists had with their mothers. (Hello Freud!) They are also personal and not always very honest. Such is the case of Sofonisba Anguissola, who painted her mother twenty years after her passing away. Looking at this vivid painting it is almost impossible to believe she had such a clear memory of her.

The second of the Frida Kahlo’s portraits of her mother is particularly somber. Just a few months before her beloved mother passed away, Frida had suffered a miscarriage. She captured the sadness of both her mother’s passing and that of her unborn child in "My Birth", a portrait of herself, a stillborn baby, and the tragic face of her mother. Who better than Kahlo to illustrate the duality of maternal love, half joy, and half pain? Just tell that to Arshile Gorky's mom who starved to death during the Armenian genocide because she sacrificed her bread ration to keep her children alive. The things parents will do.

As much as I liked this book, I cannot fail to mention that it reads in a rushed fashion. Like a tabloid. It has plenty of editorial errors. The coup de grace concerns Giorgio de Chirico, who apparently was some sort of Benjamin Button. In the book he died in 1878, ten years before he was born in 1888. He then came back to life again in 1919 to paint his mother. Astounding! I say transport his “Portrait of the Artist and His Mother” immediately to the Paranormal Mystery Museum in case he feels like surfacing again.

Written by: Laura Koffler, September 11th 2009

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