Table Speech

Why Renoir Painted Mothers and Children?

April 27, 2016

Ms. Akiko Mabuchi
Director General,
The National Museum of Western Arts

 The exhibition of Pierre-Auguste Renoir opened today at the National Art Center, Tokyo. Let me share some paintings of mothers and children produced in the late 19th century, including works by Renoir, with some explanations on their significance and historical background.

 The majority of paintings depicting “mother and child” before the Renaissance were religious paintings of St. Mary and Jesus Christ. An Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello painted a gentle-looking St. Mary with two adorable infants, Jesus and St. John the Baptist, in . Such a motif of affectionate St. Mary and sweet children became the standard style up to the 20th century. by Raffaello is another work of significance that became the origin of “mother and child” paintings in the 19th century. It shows St. Mary rubbing her cheek affectionately against child Jesus, which was innovative in depicting a familiar scene found in our everyday life. painted by Giotto di Bandone in the 14th century was a representative work of pre-Renaissance period when St. Mary and Christ were portrayed as objects of worship. Both of them face straight forward, while the expression of St. Mary does not show motherly affection. painted by Leonardo da Vinci around the same time as Raffaello is similar to Giotto’s work, making St. Mary gaze at Jesus with no personal emotions. We can see how innovative Raffaello was in expressing motherly affection.

 Élisabeth Vigeé Le Brun was a talented female painter in Revolutionary France. She painted an affectionate mother with her daughter cuddled, resembling the image of Raffaello, in . She was a beautiful lady and excelled in painting her beauty and motherly tenderness in a visually appealing way, also seen in . “Gentle mother” became an attractive motif around the French Revolution period.

 A little later, Marguerite Gérard painted that shows two ladies. We can say the lady in a silk dress belongs to the upper class, while the other lady on the left is a nanny. Aristocratic families usually had nannies in those days, as mothers were busy with social gatherings and managing their domains with their husband.

 A century later, an American female artist Mary Cassatt painted that depicted scenes of daily lives at home, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children. Cassatt lived much of her adult life in Paris where she exhibited among the Impressionists. You find a naked child in this work which was a favored subject in those days. Viewers are attracted to the beauty and elasticity of children’s skin.

 If I summarize the characteristics of “mother and child images” in France during the 19th century, live-in nannies raised children of upper-class families, while children of middle-class families were either raised by nannies or fostered out to families in the countryside up to a certain age. Underclass children were also fostered out as both parents had to work. Families that could not afford a good rearing environment suffered from high child mortality. The French government, therefore, took various measures to encourage child-rearing at home that led to the emergence of full-time housewives among certain social classes.

 In Victorian Britain, on the other hand, full-time housewives were praised as “angels in the house” and therefore, not many children were fostered out compared with France. Nannies in Britain enjoyed relatively high status among servants with high salaries. They were young healthy women, preferably new mothers themselves, entrusted to the care of beloved children. Seen in the painting by Pierre Bonnard, nannies wore a long gown and a headdress with long ribbon.

 Now, let me share some works by Auguste Renoir. is a work painted during the transition stage when Renoir diverted away from Impressionism into applying classical techniques of painting. It portrayed Renoir’s wife and son based on the motif of St. Mary and baby Christ. is another work which has the same composition. depicted Renoir’s son with a babysitter, making Renoir the only Impressionist who portrayed the artist’s family life.

 Renoir also received many requests to paint mother-child portraits. In , you find a little boy dressed like a girl which was a common practice in those days. Another striking feature is that while fathers appeared in family portraits, there exist hardly any father-child paintings. This was because children were considered to belong to their mother and paintings advocated, in a visual way, that mothers should take on full responsibility for their children. was painted upon request by a well-off family, which shows an ideal image of mother doing needlework.

 Before closing, let me give my answer to the question “why Renoir painted mothers and children?” It was because themes closely related to everyday life became popular to replace religious, mythological and historical paintings. Children were regarded as adorable beings from the mid-18th century and paintings that show children’s lives became marketable objects by the 19th century.