The Graces of Motherhood

As we continue cracking the code… I want to focus a little bit on context with the following example on motherhood, childhood, and the societal perception of families. Parenting is never a straightforward affair, but every society has its own ideas about how children should be raised. Not so long ago parents professed that “Children should be seen but not heard,” and considered children to be miniature adults who had merely to be reined in and constrained by social rules, but whose emotions were generally secondary. This attitude is captured in François Boucher’s The Luncheon (1739), for instance, in which aristocratic Parisian ladies take tea with their children. Boucher paid exquisite attention to the shimmering dresses, brilliant gilded accessories and rich furnishings in his painting, and the children seem to form a part of this background of possession, with their doll-like faces and perfect dress. Indeed, the disdainful look that the lady in red gives in response to her child’s inquisitive face is worth more than a thousand words.

boucher luncheon Boucher, The Luncheon, 1739

These ideas persisted for centuries, until the late 1700s saw the emergence of new philosophies about family structure and relationships, particularly based on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. According to Locke, children are born as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and they are shaped by their life experiences, especially during childhood. This made the mother’s job  even more important, and the “cult of domesticity” began to glorify the mother’s role as the nurturing center of every family home whose greatest responsibility was the proper education of the children. (For more info on Enlightenment and modern philosophies about parenting and childhood, click here.) Chardin_Jean-Baptiste-Simeon-The_Prayer_before_Meal Jean-Babtiste-Siméon Chardin, Saying Grace,1740

One of the earliest painters to adopt these new visions of childhood was Jean-Babtiste-Siméon Chardin, whose painting Saying Grace represents the family meal as a complete antithesis to Boucher’s sophisticated luncheon. Formally, the painting is much more austere, with a few earthy colors and plenty of shadow, while the setting is a simple kitchen table, showing only a few utensils and children’s toys, pointing to both humility and modesty. Emotionally, the figures are much more tender and compassionate towards one another. Once again the mother’s look says it all, but in this case she offers words of grace and nurturing kindness. Finally, the folded hands of the child point to a sense of piety and gratefulness, since the family is thanking God for their food. This emphasizes the value of the mother’s lessons, for instead of treating the children like dolls to be seen and not heard, Chardin’s ideal mother acts as a moral guide to teach her children proper virtues (according to the morals of their time, of course).

With a few well-placed facial expressions and vastly different settings, these two paintings express radically different views on the nature of children and the role of mothers, although they were painted only a year apart. They thus serve as a small example of the tumultuous era of the Enlightenment, in which old and new ideas about many aspects of life, not just family life, vied for supremacy and eventually led to the dawn of the modern age.

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One thought on “The Graces of Motherhood

  1. Pingback: Cracking the Code: A Series | The Art of Looking

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