A Celebration of Famous Mothers in Art and Literature

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, "Self-portrait with Her Daughter, Julie" (detail), 1786.

Strong women around the world have made a profound impact on culture, both as subjects in works of art and creators themselves. With Mother’s Day around the corner, there’s no better time to examine the impact that female artists have made on the art world, and the impact that art has had on representations of motherhood. In a traditionally male-dominated industry, it’s especially important to celebrate trailblazing female creators and their legacies.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is one of the finest 18th century French painters and is touted as the most important female artist of her time. Throughout the course of her career, she created over 600 portraits and 200 landscapes. These achievements are especially impressive given how rare both successful female painters and working mothers were during this time period.

Vigée Le Brun was lauded for her technical skill and her experience painting members of royal families across Europe. She was summoned to Versailles in 1776 to paint Marie Antoinette and went on to paint the queen more than 30 times, capturing Antoinette’s devotion to her three children in Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children.

In addition to depicting the evolution of French society, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun created images extolling the bond between mother and child. She captured images of mothers with their babies, and children alone. She even depicted her own role as a mother in her painting Self Portrait With Her Daughter, JulieShe is remembered for the unique sympathy she showed her portrait sitters due to her ability to make subjects feel comfortable and entertained throughout the portrait session.

Left: Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Self-portrait,” 1800 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Self-portrait with Her Daughter, Julie,” 1786 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)

Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer best known for her portraits of displaced farmers taken during the Great Depression. Much of her work in the 1930s was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in order to document the economic distress faced by the nation’s agricultural workers and highlight the agency’s relief programs. Her photos serve as an example of art being created with the goal of advancing public policy in the United States.

Lange is celebrated for her ability to capture the emotions of Americans struggling through challenging circumstances. One of her most famous works, titled Migrant Mother, is an iconic image of life during the Great Depression. The subject, Florence Owens Thompson, was a thirty-two-year old mother struggling to feed her family and supporting her children with seasonal agriculture work. Though she allowed Lange to capture the image with little question, she came to resent the photo, as its instant popularity did little to alleviate her family’s financial burden. Her daughter later provided commentary on her mother’s thoughts on the image saying, “She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that’s one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn’t show her in that light.”

Left: Dorothea Lange, “Dorothea Lange,” 1936 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” 1936 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alice Neel (1900–1984)

Alice Neel is known for portraits of family, friends, and strangers that incorporate an expressive use of color and line. Her paintings are beloved for their emotional intensity. One of her famous works is a portrait of Linda Nochlin and her daughter. In the piece, she uses a bright color palette and crude brushstrokes to juxtapose the mother’s intense gaze with the child’s earnest expression. A mother of four herself, Neel’s paintings show the complex emotions that accompany childhood, portraying children as unique, complicated individuals. 

For the first 40 years of her career, Neel worked without much recognition due to the popularity of abstraction during this time and because of the lack of visibility that came with being a female artist. She gained acclaim in the 1970s, as the women’s movement helped provide both context for her point of view and credibility for her work as a painter. She is celebrated as one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century and was integral in reviving the art of portraiture for the modern age.

Left: Lynn Gilbert [CC BY-SA 4.0], “Alice Neel portrait,” 1976 [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Alice Neel, “Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia),” 1967, via Curiator.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

Louise Bourgeois’s art is remembered for its focus on three-dimensional forms and personal themes around the body, desire, and the unconscious. For Bourgeois, creating art was a cathartic process. Many works confront her anxiety, which stemmed in part from the competing burdens of motherhood and artistic creation.

While the birth of her children brought her much joy, Bourgeois also experienced deep feelings of inadequacy which she expressed through her art. Her work features archetypal imagery like spiders, cages, and medical tools that symbolize both her own background and broader themes of femininity and pain. Bourgeois’s best-known works include Fillette, The Destruction of the Father, and Maman.

Left: Director Amei Wallach, Marion Cajori, “Louise Bourgeois Spider, Mistress and Tangerine,” 2008, via Alamy. Right: Louise Bourgeois, “Maman at Stockholm” [CC BY-SA 4.0], 1999, from Wikimedia Commons.

Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

Maya Angelou was an acclaimed poet, storyteller, singer, and activist. She wrote 36 books over the course of her career, and her most famous works include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Still I Rise, and Mom & Me & Mom. Often, her message centers around a belief that mankind is more alike than different.

In Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou examines her own complicated relationship with her mother, crediting her with Angelou’s own success in raising her son. The use of honest dialogue and non-linear plot in her autobiographies was innovative for its time, as her stories seldom follow a strict chronology. Angelou’s work is beloved for its depictions of the strength of women, black beauty, and the resilience of the spirit.

Left: Clinton Library (William J. Clinton Presidential Library), “Angelou at Clinton inauguration,” 1993 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Left: Cover: Uncredited Book: Maya Angelou (Amazon.com), “Mom & Me & Mom cover,” 2013 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sylvia Plath (1932–1963)

Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known poets of the 20th century. Her poems explore themes of mental illness, anguish, and womanhood. Her work is autobiographical in nature and discusses her own experiences with mental illness, her constant desire for perfection, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her authoritarian father

Plath suffered from severe depression, and her experience with this illness created the foundation for her novel The Bell Jar. Following the birth of her daughter Freida, Plath wrote “Morning Song,” a poem that explores the awakening of maternal instincts yet avoids the sentimentality typically used to describe motherhood. Her works are known for both their vivid, violent imagery and playful use of alliteration and rhyme.

Plath’s work remains highly relevant today due to its ability to speak to the female experience. Her signed pre-publication copy of The Bell Jar was recently sold to an anonymous buyer for $124,150.

Left: Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri, “Sylvia Plath,” before 1963 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Sylvia Plath, “Ariel,” 1965, via Wikipedia.

Toni Morrison (1931–present)

Toni Morrison is one of the greatest authors in American history. She is a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist best known for her depiction of the black female experience in literature. Her works discuss the everyday hardships of African Americans and examine the structural inequities that exist for people of color in America. Her novels explore characters that struggle to understand their cultural identity and to find themselves. Morrison’s works contain elements of fantasy and a poetic style that give them a unique texture and strength.

Some of her most famous works, including God Help the Child and Beloved, highlight the struggles and triumphs associated with motherhood. In God Help the Child, Morrison centers the story around a complicated mother-daughter relationship, highlighting the ways that our childhood experience of maternal love shapes the choices we make as adults.

Left: West Point – The U.S. Military Academy, “Toni Morrison West Point Lecture,” 2013 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Toni Morrison, “God Help the Child,” 2015, via Wikipedia.

Yoko Ono (1933–present)

Yoko Ono is a multimedia artist, singer, songwriter, performance artist, and activist. She has had a diverse career with successful pieces across a variety of mediums. She is a pioneer of performance art, drawing inspiration from multiple sources including Zen Buddhism and the Dada movement.

Ono gained increased visibility from her marriage to singer John Lennon, but her work has earned and maintained notoriety in its own right. Ono is also known for her contributions to the formation of Conceptual art. She was one of the strongest feminist voices in the art world in the 1960s. Her work My Mommy is Beautiful examines the complicated experience and meaning of motherhood. The exhibit centers on a blank 40-foot canvas and calls upon attendees to share messages to their own mothers. The piece was inspired in part by Ono’s own complex relationship with her mother.

Left: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief, “Bed-In for Peace, Amsterdam 1969 – John Lennon & Yoko Ono 16” [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], 1969, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Ron Cogswell, “Yoko Ono’s ‘My Mommy Is Beautiful’ Public Participation Exhibit at the Hirshhorn (DC),” 2017, via Flickr.

Motherhood Represented in Art

In addition to celebrating the mothers whose contributions directly impacted the course of art history, it’s also important to highlight the artists whose works celebrate the joys, trials, and everyday experiences of motherhood. Throughout history, artists across mediums have been inspired by the fundamental relationship between mother and child.

Representations of Motherhood in Painting

Mary Cassatt is the most well-known artist who focused on the experience of being a mother. Though she never had children of her own, her work is famous for its portrayals of mothers dressing, bathing, and caring for their children. In her paintings, Cassatt defined the “New Woman” as someone who was both a mother and a person active in society.

Other female painters that highlighted the relationship between mother and child include Paula Modersohn-Becker and Alice Neel, both of whom painted portraits of mothers and children and their unique bond. Male painters like Salvador Dali and Vincent van Gogh also drew inspiration from their relationships with their mothers. Notable representations of motherhood from art history also include pieces inspired by artists’ relationships with their mother, as well as works that include the artist’s mother as the subject.

First from left: Alice Neel, “Mother and Child”, 1926, via Alice Neel. Second from left: Mary Cassatt, “The Child’s Bath,” 1893, via Art Institute Chicago. Third from left: “Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with her Daughter, Julie,” 1789, via Sartle. Fourth from left: Paula Modersohn-Becker, “Reclining Mother and Child,” 1906, via Art History Project.

Notable representations of motherhood include:

Representations of Motherhood in Sculpture

For centuries, maternal figures have been represented in sculpture. Notable examples span religious art from the Renaissance, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, to more abstract representations like Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a bronze, stainless steel and marble sculpture in the form of a large spider. The sculpture overlooks three steel towers that are titled I Do, I Undo and I Redo, each containing a different statue of a mother and child inside of a bell jar. Throughout art history, sculptures that depict motherhood have come in a range of styles and forms, which ultimately speaks to the complex relationship between mother and child.

First from left: Michelangelo, “Pietà,” 1498-1500, via Italian Renaissance. Second from left: Louise Bourgeois, “Maman,” 1999, via Tate. Third from left: Ancient Egypt, “Isis Holding the Child Horus,” 664-525 B.C.E., via Brooklyn Museum. Fourth from left: Fernando Botero, “Mother and Child,” 1988, via Way Marking.

Notable representations of motherhood include:

Representations of Motherhood in Photography

Photography is often used to capture the complex emotions and social responsibilities that come with motherhood. Photographer Dorothea Lange’s work Migrant Mother is a famous example of a piece that captures the intensity of emotion that mothers experience. Though this piece became an icon of the Great Depression, it remains relatable decades later as it highlights a mother’s desperation and grit in the face of human suffering.

The beauty of photography is that artists are able to use this medium to express things both as they are and as they could be. Artists like Dorothea Lange and Marilyn Minter captured the reality of motherhood, while others create provocative statements through more abstract representations.

First from left: Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” 1936, via Library of Congress. Second from left: Cindy Sherman, “Untitled 1976/1989,” 1954, via Shapiro Auctions LLC. Third from left: Marilyn Minter, “Coral Ridge Towers,” 1969, via ASX.

Notable representations of motherhood include:

Representations of Motherhood in Literature

Literature has long been a medium used to describe and reflect on the experience of motherhood. The written word allows artists to dive deep into the meaning of maternity. Whether writers choose to reflect on the beauty of the relationship between a mother and child, or lament the struggle and sacrifice that can feel inevitable when a woman brings a child into the world, notable works have helped shape our cultural understanding of what it means to be a mother.

First from left: Toni Morrison, “God Help the Child,” 2015, via Wikipedia. Second from left: Cover: Uncredited Book: Maya Angelou (Amazon.com), “Mom & Me & Mom cover,” 2013 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Third from left: Sylvia Plath, “Ariel,” 1965, via Wikipedia.

Notable representations of motherhood include:

  • Sylvia Plath, Morning Song
  • Maya Angelou, Mom & Me & Mom
  • Toni Morrison, God Help the Child

Throughout the years, the relationship between mother and child has inspired male and female artists alike. Even so, it is the contributions of female artists that best shape our understanding of femininity, feminism, and motherhood. Women have a unique perspective on both the female form and the shifting nature of motherhood, making their work essential to society’s acceptance of the complicated dynamics that exist in many families. This Mother’s Day, celebrate creators who fully express the beautiful, complicated experience of being a woman.

Sources: Huffington Post | Harper’s Bazaar | Huffington Post | Met Museum | Women in the World | Parade | Britannica | AZ Quotes | Biography | Tate | Michael Rosenfeld Art | The Art Story | The Art Story | Poetry Foundation | Poetry Foundation | Poets | Britannica | Rolling Stone | The Art Story | Tate | Lauren Kindle | Bachelor and Master | Medium | Scroll | Memory.loc.gov | NPR | Grand Palais | MoMA