The image of mother and child is an image of eminent importance and familiarity in the tradition of European painting. Aside from the quintessentially human nature of the subject, the mother and child has a unique role in European art due to the importance of the relationship between Mary and Jesus in the Christian religion (and particularly the Orthodox and Catholic traditions). Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Mother and Child is unique among both this broader genre and his own peers in the Symbolist school in its composition and ethos.
The importance of the Madonna and child imagery hardly needs recapitulation for most students of European art- the list of Renaissance artists who produced a variation on this theme is likely appreciably longer than the list of Renaissance artist who did not. Nonetheless, it’s important to note why that was the case. The fact is, the image of Mary- like most popular images from the Middle Ages onward- was popular as a painting subject because it was a popularly commissioned by the patrons of artists. It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of Mary, the mother of Jesus in European culture over the centuries. Beyond that, the brighter side of parenthood was one of the easier aspects of the Christian canon of imagery to depict- unlike the life, passion, etc. of Jesus, which was quite dramatic, Mary and Jesus seated together presented a subject which is both adequately devout and uniquely serene in nature.
I don’t want to get carried away with providing examples of Madonna and child imagery (that could be a blog unto itself!), but I’ll provide a couple of examples of this trope for reference- one from the early Renaissance painter Duccio and one from a later Italian painter Sandro Botticelli:
There is nothing about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s image of a mother and her child that explicitly references the Madonna and child tradition, as easy as it would be to imagine that he would anticipate his image being linked to that tradition. That said, his image is strikingly different from familiar variations on the broader theme of a mother and child. Whereas the image of a mother and child avails the opportunity to display both the tenderness of that relationship and the emotions of the mother in her facial expressions, Pinkham Ryder depicted his pair facing each other with back turned to the viewer. The focus of attention is not on a display of emotion itself.
The act of situating the subjects so that we cannot see their expressions introduces a new and intriguing dynamic to the image of mother and child: the viewer is left to imagine the look on the mother’s face. Is the child asleep? Is the woman comforting a crying child? This compositional device invites the agency of the viewer.
Bringing the viewer to starting-point of a departure of the imagination was the stock-and-trade of the Symbolist painter. As I stated in my introduction to my approach to Albert Pinkham Ryder,
“The labor of the Symbolist was to strategically situate the symbol as a touchstone- a marker at a crossroad or a fork in the road of aesthetic experience- to serve as a point of departure for the viewer into a deeper and more personal state of ineffable spiritual or psychological exploration.”
The journey to the heart of this image is the viewer’s to make- it is not proffered in the the manner of Botticelli and Duccio. This compositional device clearly links this piece to Symbolist tradition. An explicit example of this aim of the symbolist can be found Odilon Redon’s painting Winged Man:
In Redon’s piece, we are brought to the cliff of imagination. The eponymous winged man looks out toward the horizon, perhaps toward his goal. Or perhaps he looks inward as he prepares to launch into flight. He might be the legendary Icarus, in which case we wait in suspense and anticipation for the ultimate failure of the central figure. He might be an angel returning to the celestial realm. In any case, any and all of those possibilities are on the table, and the purpose of the image is not to tell us which presumption is correct. The point is to take us to the precipice.
While the approach and aims of Pinkham Ryder’s image may have much in common with Symbolist sensibilities, his choice of specific subject is anything but typical. The Symbolists approached femininity with trepidation and skepticism more often than not. One is more likely to find the Symbolist depicting Salomé- the decapitator of John the Baptist- than a mother and her child. Indeed, Gustave Moreau, the preeminent Symbolist, depicted Salomé many times. Felicien Rops, as I have noted previously, made a career of exploiting fears of the femme fatale archetype. Franz von Stuck took a less provocative approach than Rops, but essentially made the same kind of name for himself as a depictor of female ferociousness. In fact, the list of Symbolists who did not depict femme fatale imagery is, like our list of Renaissance painters who didn’t depict the Madonna and child, is much shorter than the list of those who did. The introduction of a female figure who is not in some way explicitly in tension with masculinity is somewhat of a departure from predominant trends in continental Symbolist art of the day.
As I hope to illustrate in future essays on Albert Pinkham Ryder, he was adept at utilizing the animating spirit of the Symbolist and “decadent” styles coming out of Europe while maintaining a idiomatic and distinct body of subject matter. Decades after his time, images of the mother and child that employ similar tools of uncertainty and obscurantism started to proliferate: Dali, Picasso, Henry Moore, and Francis Picabia produced variations on the theme ranging from sympathetic to bizarre in character. In this way, we can see Pinkham Ryder here (as elsewhere) as somewhat of a bridge to the Modernist moment, where idioms of expression and subject took privilege over “accessibility” and familiarity of subject.