Mother and child oil painting by Bay Backner

‘Mothers hold their children’s hands for a while, but their hearts forever’

There’s a quiet beauty in the poses we use to hold our children. As I trace the lines where mother and child meet, the paint often runs in a continuous stroke from one into the other. I find myself stopping to enjoy the poses my body takes as I balance my fourteen month old on my hip, or sit my six year old on my lap as we read together.

Mother and child oil painting by Bay Backner

‘Mother and child’, Bay Backner, 2016

But like so much of motherhood, the way we hold our children is a transient joy. I take a neighbour’s four week old baby to my chest and realise the hold is a dear, old, lost friend. Like the way my children put their hand in my mouth at eight months, or held my thumb to cross the road at three. These subtle poses and touches disappear.

It’s a dance that stays silently with us until we pick up a newborn or lift a grandchild at the park. Then a rush of memory comes with the movement, and we’re hit by the sadness and joy that haunts so much of motherhood. Finding these movements and moments captured in photographs is my treasure. The holds we use with our children are an art.

“Mothers hold their children’s hands for a while, but their hearts forever”


'Mother of Two', Bay Backner - Mother and child oil painting

The art of mothers & motherhood as war art

As an artist I’m interested in images of the reality of motherhood rather than its chocolate-coated imposter. I see art concerned with motherhood as war art.

(War) Artists record military activities in ways that cameras and the written word cannot. Their art collects and distills the experiences of the men and women who endured it.[5]

Swap ‘mothering’ for military in the quick definition from wikipedia above. You have my definition of mother art. Or ‘parent art’ if we’d like to invite the chaps to the table.

I don’t intend to belittle the experience of war. The experiences of motherhood cannot be compared to being gassed in a trench. But motherhood is a singularly impactful life event which makes acute and painful changes to who we are. One in every ten of us will experience postnatal depression in our first year of motherhood. Psychiatric disorder, and suicide in particular, is the leading cause of maternal death.  (See Suicide: The Silent Thief of Mothers).

Mother and child oil painting by Bay Backner - Mum of Two

‘Mother of Two’, Bay Backner, 2016

The art of motherhood should ‘collect and distill the experiences’ of those that have endured it. Like war, motherhood is an arena for the far reaches of human emotion. Fear, despair, love, hate, anger and courage become real living breathing aching realities. New feelings need to be named before they overwhelm us.

And motherhood is an arena from which we can’t withdraw.

In war zones, I would learn about another feeling, one I have yet to define but seems the opposite of fear: that feeling is a sense of my aliveness. And somewhere between these two feelings resides a place I think of as courage.

– War Photojournalist Cheryl Diaz Meyer

Fear, courage and Meyer’s ‘aliveness’ are the difficult, complex places art about motherhood should explore. We need art to express its soaring heights and trembling lows. Why? If nothing else to act as war art does – to record motherhood’s reality, and to share this reality with the mothers to come.

Resources on Artists as Mothers & Motherhood in Art

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, lecturer Jean Sorabella finds inspiration in idealized depictions of mothers. Art connections / Motherhood

She makes it look so easy, and she’s never punishing the Christ child, or giving him a time-out.

Artist Residency in Motherhood

Lenka Clayton, conceptual artist and full-time mother created Artist Residency in Motherhood as both a personal and political statement… it subverts the art-world’s romanticisation of the unattached (often male) artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labor, for exploration and artistic production.

Motherhood in art: from miracle milk to joke shop breasts and caesarean scars

Zoe Williams on ‘Body of Art’ by Phaidon, Oct 15

…this had to wait for a female painter to find its expression; there being fewer of those, the topic is and has always been underrepresented. Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath, painted in 1893 by the only American to exhibit with the impressionists, takes the most quotidian act (washing a child’s feet) and invests it with poignancy merely through the direction of their gaze; the mother and child communicate on a level so instinctive that their eyes appear to be moved by the same nervous system.


From Huffington Post on Art in Motherhood

Egon Schiele Tote Mutter

Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother With Three Children, 1936

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926). Woman in a Red Bodice and Her Child, ca. 1901.


READ Stewart Buettner
Woman’s Art Journal
Vol. 7, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986 – Winter, 1987), pp. 14-21

Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood

Sharon L. Butler, Article, The Brooklyn Rail,


Elizabeth Murray, painter

Jenny Saville, The Mothers, 2011

Jenny Saville, Continuum – book

Pregnancy Expands a Vision – Wall Street Journal on Jenny Saville’s 2011 exhibition

Art Pulse Magazine, Tales of Motherhood – Piece by Jenny Klein

It would be an over-exaggeration to claim that the topic of motherhood is suddenly a trendy issue in the contemporary art world. However, the renewed interest in feminist art coupled with the mainstream institutionalization of feminist art and artists has resulted in an increased visibility and acknowledgement of feminist art that engages with the topics of maternity and motherhood.

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood – book

Balancing the Tide online project by poet Molly Sutton Keifer

Tracy Emin as quoted in The Independent on motherhood and art