Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | October 24, 2018

Motherhood Over the Centuries

This past week while we were looking at the Famine Documentation in the context of the Irish Potato Famine and the Sepoy Rebellion, I was particularly struck by our conversation regarding the sympathetic view of media feature females. I was specifically interested the use of the identity of motherhood, the potential of the family unit as a vessel to garner sympathy, and the use of these methods over centuries to influence visual culture.

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 11.43.36 PMJames Mahoney, Sketch in a House at Fahey Quay, Ennis – the Widow Connor and Her Dying Child

In this sketch by James Mahoney, a mother leans over her dying child in the hovel that they inhabit. The caption labels it “The Widow Connor and Her Dying Child”. Here, the figure of the mother who is supposed to be a nurturer and caretaker has failed, according to Mahoney. She is on her knees, praying over her dying child who is bathed in the warm heavenly light of God. No illusions here. Religious overtones dominate this scene with the light, the male child and the mother with the head covering. Here, Mahoney has set up his own Potato Famine Madonna and Child. However, Madonna has failed to take care of her child. To support him. To let him live out his full potential. Despite these important things, these details reflect more deeply on the role and character of the mother. It puts her into the negative light of being a failed and unfit caretaker.

Despite these negative connotations brought on by sketches such as this one, Irish women were actually the centers of the family. During the Potato Famine, 1-1.5 million Irish died and between 1-2 million Irish emigrated (Martin, 2018). Many of these were men. Feeling like they could not support their families, men emigrated hoping to find work and send money back to their families. This left the women to raise the children, farm the potatoes and keep the family together. They became the backbone for Irish culture and economy (Martin, 2018). This is completely opposite of how females are depicted in visual media from this time.

Outreach was not as readily available as efforts are today and the effort from the British to help their colony was minimal. In order to be more effective in their methods to attract Britain’s attention, perhaps the Irish were capitalizing on their method of garnering sympathy using the female body. No matter what the intent, the sketch captures only one dimension of Irish women, as a mother. There is no visual culture addressing their success in creating economy and trade during the Famine. Instead, we consume the media portraying mothers in their times of perceived failure.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother

This kind of sympathetic documentary photography was not scant in the 20th century. During the Great Depression, documentary photography also used this kind of light to garner support and sympathy that was disseminated through magazines and newspapers. This is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. A photo produced for precisely this reason. Here, the mother is sitting between her two children looking pensively off to the left. Her children lean on her shoulders, hiding their heads in the crook of her neck and her shoulder. She is central to the photograph. Her face showing the stress and worry. How is she going to take care of these two who are literally leaning on her? Whose lives depend on her. Her hands are dirty and play with the downward turned corner of her mouth. Perhaps indicating the hunger and desire for food or just playing with her face in worry.

Lange has perhaps posed her as the new-age, Great Depression Madonna and Child. Where the sketch of the Irish mother has her on her knees praying to save her child or to send her child to heaven, this photo shows the more realistic view of motherhood. She worries over how to care for her children, not that this photograph will be used to garner sympathy. That her role as a mother is to provide, not provide a momentary look of worry that will motivate others to reach out in aid. This again provides only one aspect of the mother. In this medium, this mother becomes a representative for all suffering in the Depression. This photograph is a seemingly a portrait that captures her features and her children who are wrapped up in her identity. She is not presenting herself as an individual for the sake of herself. Instead, she becomes every mother during the Depression.


300px-Sir_Joshua_Reynolds_-_Lady_Elizabeth_Delmé_and_Her_Children_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgJoshua Reynolds, Lady Delme and Her Children

Unlike the two pieces of media above, the intention of this portrait is not sympathetic or empathetic. Rather, it speaks more to the representation of motherhood. The composition of both of these images recalls a portrait that we looked at in the beginning of the semester, Joshua Reynolds’ “Lady Delme and Her Children”. Compositionally they are extremely similar, with the female dominating as the central presence and the children gathering around. They create a triangle which allows the viewer to look at her then down to each of her children and then the dog at the bottom right (Martin, 2018). Symbolically, she also has a similar function to “Migrant Mother” and Widow Connor. Since the father is not in the portrait, she is tied to child-raising and the children themselves. Like “Migrant Mother”, Lady Delme’s identity is wrapped up with the idea of child bearing, raising and motherhood. There is a feeling of intense nurturing and care for the children as Lady Delme’s arm is wrapped around them. However, what differentiates her here is the lack of sympathy. Instead, this portrait is one to be made spectacle of. It is meant to be gazed at and admired in, I dare to say, jealousy. There is not feeling of sympathy to be elicited from this image, but the functionality in representing motherhood is remarkably similar.

Although, these pieces come from significantly different time periods but the use of the mother to garner sympathy is utilized in all of them. All these women are shown in completely different contexts but whose identities are completely intertwined with children. Their role as a mother is made into a spectacle, an object for the gaze of any media consumer. Rather than focusing on them as an individual and representing themselves, they become emblematic of all mothers and children during these times of natural catastrophe.


Works Cited:

Lange, Dorathea. “Migrant Mother”, 1936.

Martin, Amy. “Famine Sketches and Photography Lecture”. Victorian Literature and Visual Culture. Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. 10 Oct, 2018.

Reynolds, Joshua. “Lady Delme and Her Children”, 1777-79.

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