Posted by: mclea22h | November 29, 2014

Another Suggestive Mother Portrait


I was at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston the other day and ran across a little exhibition about The Pictorialists, a group of photographers from around 1900 who worked to bring their medium into the realm of fine art. While roaming around the show, I discovered The Manger by Gertrude Käsebier, an image from 1899.

The picture, a mother in long white robes and a veil who peers down at a “baby” nestled against her, reminded me of our conversation about Julia Margaret Cameron’s Madonna portraits and the Victorian-era hidden mother images. But instead of the mother cut out of the image like in some photos we saw in class, the baby here is totally invisible in this mother’s arms—in fact, there’s no baby at all! I was a little alarmed when I first learned that the bundled blanket is just a prop in the image; the absence creates a feeling of loss or longing comparable to the sleeping/dead baby images we’ve also looked at. While the image is of a nativity scene, I like to think it could be interpreted as the reverse: a death, a mourning, rather than a birth. Whatever the case, Käsebier’s ability to transform a “normal” woman into a consummate Madonna figure here mirrors Cameron’s photographic talents: celebrating and using the ordinary to make staged arrangements authentic and emotional.

Käsebier, also a mother who took up photography in her forties like Cameron, became a successful photographer quickly after she created The Manger. Aligning with American Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneer in the world of photography and promoter of pictorial photographers, Käsebier took her painting knowledge from art school and applied it to a new kind of image-making style. After the first Kodak camera came out in 1888, photographers of Käsebier’s kind worried about the normality of the photograph, a product of its new accessibility. Hoping for legitimacy as an art form, the group pulled current art trends from painting—impressionism, symbolism, and the Arts and Crafts movement, for example—and incorporated them into their images. The blurred light and shadow and overall soft quality of The Manger heighten its gestural or painterly quality, for example. What do you think?

A closer look:


Käsebier, Gertrude. The Manger. 1800. Platinum print.


  1. Wow. So creepy! I’m glad you decided to write about this. It’s cool! Did it say that the baby was not real in the label? I’m interested in how you found out!

    I’m also really interested in the idea you put forth about the absence of a baby meaning loss / death, etc. Since the image is a construction anyway, I’m wondering if it’s even important that a real baby is not present in the photo. Of course, knowing the infant is really a prop heightens the viewers’ awareness of the kinds of feelings the photograph is meant to portray and knowing about this intention could negate any real feelings the viewer produces.


    If I hadn’t known that there wasn’t even a baby there, I might have been hesitant to think about this photo in terms of death, especially since the mother and “child” are both in white drapery – -they look so angelic. Like they’re full of new life. So I so agree with you that knowing about the lack of kid really changes the feel of the photo.

    Also, does it kind of look like she is breastfeeding to you? I only say that because of the way her left hands looks like it’s pulling her dress back a little. I’m wondering if the photographer meant to introduce the idea of breastfeeding / nurturing / sustaining life, etc. into this photo through that hand position or if that’s just me reading way into this.

  2. I think Emily’s comment about being “full of new life” is really poignant here, because it does appear that way on first glance — and then there’s the stark realization that one of those lives is absent. It’s the moment between those glances, I think, that infuses this image with so much grief. Where the ghost mother images have a Gothic, slightly absurdist feel, this image seems to capture a deeper loss. Ghost mother images are commissioned by mothers (or families) in order to have an intimate token memorializing the child as an individual. Even if the mother aims to appear absent, there is an implicit relationship between mother and child in the photographs. The same relationship exists here — but the child is missing.

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