Woman Holding a Balance by Jan Vermeer

"Woman Holding a Balance"
by Jan Vermeer

Reclining Mother and Child by Paula Modersohn-Becker

"Reclining Mother and Child"
by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Yearling Nursing by Susan Wadsworth

Yearling Nursing
by Susan Wadsworth

TKM Nursing by Susan Wadsworth

"TKM Nursing"
by Susan Wadsworth

Battenkill Nursing by Susan Wadsworth

"Battenkill Nursing"
by Susan Wadsworth

The Art of Breastfeeding

Editor's Note: The following selected passages are from "A Mother's Perspective: Vermeer, Modersohn-Becker and New Childscapes" by Susan M. Wadsworth, M.F.A., M.A.

Since being pregnant with our third child, our first little girl, born in April 1999, I have become inspired by her birth and by her interactions with her brothers to begin a new series of works which I have called "childscapes," seen from the mother's perspective. Two or three other artists have also come to my attention again and have become inspirational: the work of Vermeer, of the ubiquitous Mary Cassatt and of Modersohn-Becker, especially in their works of pregnant and nursing mothers. For it is in these works that one finds not only an updating of the traditional Mother and Child image but also an earthy and yet spiritual version that is more in keeping, perhaps, with our everyday habits in the modern age. Their concentration on love and relationships speaks to all women, mothers and parents today.

It was Vermeer's images of pregnant women that caught my attention recently, probably after I had executed my own image of pregnancy. Woman Holding a Balance has traditionally been viewed as weighing of materialistic jewels vs. the weighing of souls in the painting behind her. Yet in 1977, scholar Arthur Wheelock noticed that there is nothing on the scales. Then what exactly is this woman weighing? I focused upon her thought and her pregnancy. Not how the lines of her lower arms, hands and scales intersect at and enclose her protruding belly. Even her contented, peaceful expression points this way. How can she not be weighing the relative unimportance of material goods against the precious child within her? Her downcast eyes seem to register some uncertainty: of her future, of that of her child, and yet a broad acceptance of this experience as well.

In this way it is my contention that Vermeer created some of the first sensitive and spiritual images of pregnancy, even if he was a man. Mary Cassatt did at least one image of nursing, although, of course, not from her own viewpoint (since she never married nor had children). Her use of pattern and swelling forms in pastel creates an intimacy that one can almost touch. As Nancy Mowell Matthews has noted, "Her mothers and children were emphatically modern but had the monumentality of the traditional Madonna and Child."

Nor are these sentimentalized images. In her work there is a portrayal of children as they really are. Children are grouchy upon waking up from a nap, squirming, bored and restless. Cassatt has made them as tactile and alive as possible with a soft sense of touch, between mother and child as well as between the shapes themselves.

The paintings of Modersohn-Becker that most interest me today are those of pregnancy and nursing. It seems that she intuits what it is like to be a mother, not only in the pregnant images but in her nursing images as well. It is this earthy look, evident in Nursing Mother and Mother and Child from 1906-7, which especially appeals to me. Some critics say that these show the tedium of nursing, and they may be right. But what I see is resignation coupled with intimacy: the way the peasant mother's hand holds that of her baby even while her other fist is almost clenched in Nursing Mother. None of these mothers looks angelic or beautiful: they are not the Virgin Mary. Neither are these newborn babes. The discomfort is enhanced in Mother and Child in the way the mother kneels. Why is she kneeling? No mother that I know of would do this for the twenty or more minutes required for nursing. Is this a way of giving homage to motherhood, as if in prayer? If so, it is a new way to combine religious iconography with earthy motherly themes. The Virgin herself could not be more devoted: kneeling nude to nurse her child.

My favorite nurturing image of hers is Reclining Mother and Child. In this work, she shows an uncanny understanding of the need for sleep after nursing, especially in the middle of the night. Here the mother and child are nude, but there is none of the sexuality and sensuality traditionally associated with female nudes throughout the history of art. Instead, this is a nourishing mother, much like mother earth herself. This work has inspired a direct image from my own work (Morning Nursing, Pool Pond, 1999), but with a much clumsier body of the mother.

There are many things I wish to convey in these ostensibly simple drawings: the preciousness of daily life with children, the inherent spirituality of such a loving relationship, the adorable shapes and interactions as they learn to scramble into your lap, climb stairs, play with siblings, etc. At the same time, I want to make these experiences universal. These are not traditional portraits; often only the top of the head is seen. One sees my legs and arms, not my face. I am hoping the viewer will be able to put him-or herself in my place and feel what I feel about being a mother.

I know that in my own life, in some of my most creative moments, forms are created in a welling of ideas that come from deep, dark inside. Something says to me: "Do this line, this texture, this gesture, this shape," even though there may not be a rational reason. But it is these moments that lead to new shapes, developments and realizations, as some of my simple forms can work on many levels.

It is interesting that some people do not realize what the bumps are in these nursing images, and then suddenly, with shock, they realize what they are seeing. I hope and think sometimes that it works, that the viewer may also feel the intimacy and preciousness of these nursing moments. When looking at works hanging side by side like this, I almost feel as if I were nursing again. Like Modersohn-Becker, the breasts are not sensual but nourishing. I hope that these works go beyond traditional limits of sexuality and obscenity to convey the deepest aspect of mother as nurturer.

Note: Susan Wadsworth is one of several artists participating in the "Art of Breastfeeding" exhibit at Amy's Bakery Arts Cafe, 113 Main St., during the month of August.

Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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