Caroline Walker’s Intimate Paintings of Motherhood Resist Expectations

Charlotte Jansen
May 5, 2022 5:00PM

Caroline Walker, Study for Afternoon Feed, 2022. © Caroline Walker. Photo by Peter Mallet. Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

At Stephen Friedman Gallery, a series of intimate portrait paintings and ink drawings meditate on the quotidian routines of a first-time mother and her newborn baby. On view through May 28th, Caroline Walker’s solo exhibition “Lisa” shares its name with the artist’s sister-in-law, one of the primary subjects of this latest body of work.

“I was thinking about how I felt going through that experience—that huge transition and physical change, and that shift in your identity where the scope of everything that is possible seems to shrink to the level of the domestic,” Walker said in an interview with Artsy. She began the series by working from photographs when Lisa was six months pregnant, and drawing in charcoal and ink before transferring the images to oil on canvas. Now, Lisa’s baby—Walker’s niece—is nine months old.


The exhibited paintings vary from small, loosely rendered studies to life-size works that feel immersive, like you could step into them. They focus solely on Lisa and her infant daughter and unfold entirely inside the various rooms of their home. A trio of 2022 paintings titled variations of Night Feed capture the somnolent first days of motherhood. Aglow with nocturnal light, the works document the day Lisa returned home from the hospital. “She was handling her baby like she might break her, but she was still able to hold her with that innate understanding mothers have,” Walker recalled. The paintings embody the heady, instinctive ambience of early parenthood.

Walker creates painterly conversations with Edgar Degas’s and Édouard Manet’s 19th-century depictions of middle-class public life; she also looked to Mary Cassatt’s portraits of women and children. Yet what is striking about Walker’s works are their resistance to expectation; the artist shrugs off sentimentality despite her profound personal connection to her subjects. A sense of creeping isolation and monotony is evoked by her depiction of the changing natural light filtering in from outside and her attention to desultory objects strewn across surfaces. Unfinished cups of tea and water, books cast aside, unopened gifts, and overflowing laundry hint at a rhythm of constant interruptions.

One of the two still lifes in the exhibition depicts a basin full of baby bottles and pump parts ready to be cleaned. “I’d never seen a painting of a breast pump!” Walker exclaimed. Her intention was not to glamorize or diminish the experience, but to find a more truthful expression. “The image of motherhood is often idealized and romanticized,” Walker said. “I wanted to be quietly suggestive of the claustrophobia, the loneliness, the joy of the connection you feel with this person you made, but also the mix of other emotions.”

At times, the paintings verge on ominous. In Roundmoor Drive (2022), the viewer’s perspective is set outside, peering in through a glass door, reminiscent of film noir or a Gregory Crewdson photograph. The viewer’s observing gaze is constantly felt, but the subject, so enveloped in her duties and love, doesn’t look back. It is also a reminder of a private, interior world, the unknowable bond between mother and child that the outside cannot access.

Walker’s debut at Stephen Friedman follows “Birth Reflections,” an exhibition of works at London’s Fitzrovia Chapel painted from photographs of the maternity ward at University College Hospital in London where Walker gave birth. The paintings show the clinical side to labor and childbearing. Both emotive, dramatic, and documentary in approach, they work in tandem with the pieces in “Lisa” to extend the narrative around care to invisible labor, to what happens when you come home.

While the works will resonate deeply with women who have been through these experiences, Walker asserted, “I don’t want to exclude anyone from the conversation; maternity is connected to a bigger subject of care that anyone can relate to.” Her paintings are part of a wider shift—further accelerated by the pandemic and the inward turning of public interest to the domestic—to depict birth and motherhood with nuance and intrigue.

“I think if I made the work five years ago, it wouldn’t be looked at in the same interest, or beyond the direct subject,” Walker said. “The conversation has moved on a lot and is seen as something more universally interesting.” And what, after all, is more universally shared than the passage from our mother’s body to Earth?

Charlotte Jansen