The genre of portraiture as we know it emerged 500 years ago during the Renaissance, and artists often turned to their family members as subjects. German printmaker Albrecht Dürer was one of the first to capture his mother on paper, portraying her as an aging yet regal woman. Readily available (not to mention affordable), artist’s mothers make for great models, so it’s no wonder so many artists since have made muses of their moms.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), 1871
Anna McNeill Whistler—depicted seated in profile and staring forward―has become an icon of puritanical motherhood, and has featured on national stamps and town monuments. (A statue of her in Pennsylvania is even accompanied by the phrase “A Mother Is the Holiest Thing Alive.”) This legacy, however, runs counter to the artist’s intention, which was to create a work about color and composition, not about his mother. Legend has it that the subject matter of this painting is a mere happy accident: When Whistler’s model did not show up, his mother stepped in to pose for her son. “To me, it is interesting as a picture of my mother,” Whistler explains in his book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. “But what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” In fact, the public cared quite a bit, enough to effectively rename the painting Whistler’s Mother from its original title Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.
Impressionist painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt is best known for her portrayals of mothers dressing, caressing, and bathing their sleepy children. These works, while intimate, were by no means autobiographical, as Cassatt never married or had children. “I am independent,” said the artist. “I can live alone and I love to work.” Cassatt did not live alone for very long, however, as her parents, Robert and Katherine Cassatt, moved from Pennsylvania to Paris in 1877 to live with their daughter. This portrait—one of Cassatt’s last depictions of her mother—displays the ailing Katherine Cassatt deep in thought, sitting stoically with her head in her hand.
Over the course of one weekend in Fort Lauderdale, photographer Marilyn Minter—then an undergraduate student—documented her 60-year-old mother’s everyday life using a single roll of 2 ¼-inch film. In a 12-photograph series now known as “Coral Ridge Towers,” she captured her mother, a reclusive person who struggled with addiction, fixing her makeup, trying on wigs, smoking a cigarette, and dyeing her eyebrows, all while wearing her nightgown. Presenting these images in her photography class, Minter was surprised to find that her fellow students were “horrified” by these unidealized portraits of motherhood, though she has noted that her visiting professor, Diane Arbus, quite liked them. “For my brothers and I, it’s just Mom,” remembers Minter. “We don’t see what you see.”
Rembrandt’s portraits of his mother are as personal as they are practical. While Rembrandt was the leading Dutch painter of his time, he had life-long financial issues, and family members made for the most affordable models. In 1631—a year after Rembrandt’s father died—the artist created these two etchings of his widowed mother. The first displays her dressed in an Eastern costume, wearing a lavish fur coat and a scarf wrapped around her head. In the second, Rembrandt studies his mother’s expression; she clenches her hand by her heart and looks downward, her black mourning veil serving as a clue as to what is on her mind.
In a sober portrait of her mother, LaToya Ruby Frazier hides behind her parent, as if merely a shadow. The work hints at the larger issues fueling the artist’s practice, which brings to attention marginalized individuals and communities, such as that of her rustbelt hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania. “Grandma Ruby, Mom, and I have all been shaped by external forces,” Frazier has said. Three generations of Frazier women—the artist included, who suffers from lupus—are affected by illnesses related to Braddock’s industrial past. “On the micro-level, we are three women from an abandoned community, but on the macro-level, I see us as symbolic of state oppression and neglect.”
“It has more to do with love than with sociology,” writes the photographer Larry Sultan of his decade-long project to document his parents’ lives after his father lost his job. Loving, but not idealizing, these photographs provide an intimate look into their San Fernando Valley home, seen through the lens of a son trying to preserve the image of his aging parents. A satin shirt, polyester pants, a green wall, and a Dodger’s game punctuate this portrait of Sultan’s mother, who gazes forward at her son with a look of affectionate frustration, while her husband, perhaps unaware of Sultan’s camera, stares at the television screen.
Every five years, Ragnar Kjartansson asks his mother, the Icelandic actress Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir, to spit on him for at least five minutes straight. Facing the camera, they stand side by side in Ásmundsdóttir’s living room with deadpan expressions as she repeatedly and dramatically turns to her son and spits. Exhibited together, these four video works—filmed from 2000 to 2015—capture this absurd family tradition between an aging artist and his cooperative mother. “Please don’t ask me what it means!” said Ásmundsdóttir in an interview last year. “I don’t know!”
In 1929, eight years after his mother died, Dalí joined the Surrealist movement, a group fascinated with the Freudian workings of the unconscious. That same year, Dalí depicted himself asleep (his profile can be found at the lower left corner of the image) with a floating brown body, covered with the words ma mère, which translates to “my mother.” A surrealist dreamscape, the artwork gives form to Dalí’s longing for his mother, while a man—perhaps Dali’s father—walks onward in the distance. (Dalí’s father married his wife’s sister, Dalí’s aunt, shortly after her death, which strained his relationship with the artist). And, as if that weren’t Freudian enough, for 36 years the work hung above a couch in the office of a Zurich psychoanalyst. The painting was later purchased at auction for $807,408, setting the record in 1982 for most expensive work ever sold by a living artist.
“My mother is going to die soon, this drawing is a testament to her inner beauty,” writes Charles Steffen underneath a detailed drawing of his mother, who sits almost enthroned in a tall upholstered chair. In 1950, during his first year at art school, Steffen was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the next 13 years in a psychiatric institution. Through it all, Steffen’s mother became his lifeline, and he drew her profusely. In fact, Steffen was such a prolific drawer that his family feared their house would catch on fire from the sheer abundance of paper.