Storge, the Greek word for familial love, is the title of the art exhibition. Consisting of six works of art, of varying mediums, all but one from the modern era, this art show is meant to project love of family, and the feelings it may bring, whether they are joy or anguish. All the pieces in the show are meant to evoke maternal or paternal feelings in the viewers, and when combined, the pieces are meant to show the journey of parenthood.
The duality of the show should be clear with the contrast between some of the happier pieces, such as The Bath, by Cassat, or The Cradle, by Morisot, and some of the darker works, like Migrant Mother, by Lange, and the very famous Pieta, by Michelangelo. The exhibition is also supposed to demonstrate the timelessness of storge, that no matter what century it is, feelings of parenthood are always powerful. Each piece will be placed on its own in a large plain room, and the viewers will walk from one room the next in a sort of chronological order, illustrating the journey of a child’s growth, and how it may affect their parents.
The first work shown is The Cradle, and was painted in 1872 using oil on canvas, by Impressionist artist, Berthe Morisot. The piece is of Morisot’s sister Edma gazing at her sleeping baby daughter, and is a beautiful depiction of true motherly love. Morisot used her sister Edma as a model in several other works, like Young Woman Seated at a Window, however, the most powerful works, I found, were the depictions of motherhood, of Edma with her children, such as Hide-and-Seek or On the Grass. The Cradle instills a maternal sense in most viewers, which, after closer inspection seems to be due to the way Morisot had positioned her sister.
Edma’s hand drawing the curtain over the cradle, partially obscuring the baby from view creates a feeling of intimacy, and shows the traditional protectiveness a mother has for her child. While the colours that Morisot chose create a somewhat somber feeling, the piece isn’t quite sad. It projects a sense of contentment and serenity, especially coming from the mother’s expression. Some have detected a slight sense of longing in the mother’s eyes, possibly wishing to be able to keep her child safe like this forever, but overall, Morisot creates a peaceful atmosphere evoking motherly sensations in the viewers.
The Bath (1892), by Mary Cassat, is another oil on canvas Impressionist painting, also depicting a mother and child. The child in this piece is a few years older than the baby in Morisot’s The Cradle, demonstrating the show’s idea of a child’s growth. Some have described Cassat’s series of pieces showing mother and child as “largely unsentimental”, however, there is an undeniable feeling of closeness between the two figures, a mother and a daughter. The body language of the mother shows tender care for her daughter, as she gently washes her child’s toes during bathtime.
The child, mostly naked, sitting on her mother’s lap is a picture of innocence and vulnerability. The mother cradling her child, holding the girl on her lap with an arm around her hip, creates an image of quiet protectiveness similar to The Cradle. The effect of putting The Bath after Morisot’s piece symbolizes the strong love that mother’s have for their children, because they are both pieces that show the strong bond between parent and child. The painting in the next room after The Bath, is The Banjo Lesson, painted using oil on canvas in 1893, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a prominent African-American Impressionist painter.
This piece shows a black father or grandfather with a young boy on his lap, teaching the boy to play the banjo. Compared with the two works that came before it, The Banjo Lesson shows an even closer bond between parent and child. The closeness of the two figures shows a strong familiarity between them, and again, a feeling of intimacy and protectiveness. The child stands between the man’s legs, leaning against his knee and torso, studiously trying to play a banjo, that’s too big for him, emphasizing his youth and frailty.
The man, old and weather, intently watches the child’s delicate fingers, while supporting the neck of the instrument. This painting symbolizes the sharing of knowledge between parent and child, which is a big part of the parental journey. Though there are heavy shadows on the figures’ faces, the concentrated expressions are obvious, and despite that Tanner used mostly darker colours for the foreground, the lighter background, suggesting a fireplace off to the side, creates a feeling of physical warmth, combined with the heartwarming feeling the piece brings.
The next three pieces of the Storge show shift the feeling from maternal or paternal warmth, to a slightly sadder sort of feeling. Coming after The Banjo Lesson, is a series of black and white photographs, taken in 1936, Nipomo, California, by Dorothea Lange, called Migrant Mother. The photos all show a poor pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, the mother of seven children, wearing looks of worry and extreme sadness. All the photos in the set are extremely powerful, because of the feeling of desperation and heartache they generate in viewers of the pictures.
At the time, Thompson and her kids had been existing off of frozen vegetables from the field and any birds that her children could kill. The children are positioned differently from photograph to photograph, but the expression on the mother’s face remains the same. It is a mixture of different emotions: disappointment, that she was unable to give her children a proper home; deep concentration, trying to find a way to make a better life for her family; serious concern, about how to make ends meet, where their next meal would come from; and tiredness, physically and mentally exhausted.
In most pictures, she cradles her infant, while her other children lean on her. The body language of all the figures represents how a parent is a support system for the child, no matter how exhausted they are. The next work in the Storge exhibition is Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, painted by James McNeill Whistler, in 1871. The oil on canvas, Impressionist piece shows, as the title dictates, the artist’s mother. At first glance, I had assumed, as did many others, that the mother was at her child’s funeral.
It is a very somber picture, the woman wearing all black, clearly old, seeming vulnerable and sad. With some research, I learned that is definitely not what happened. Whistler’s mother had, apparently, sat in on for the portrait when the model became sick. It’s interesting how this piece shows a different sort of familial love. Rather than parent to child, it’s child to parent. Whistler managed to really evoke his mother’s Protestant character with the pose, expression, and colours that he used. There is exceptional attention to detail when it comes to his mother’s face, which kind of symbolizes their relationship.
He would have to be very close to her to capture her character in his art, and even to physically recreate her face. I also detected a slight feeling of worry on Whistler’s part, with his mother aging. She had been standing at the start of the portrait, but she had to sit down due to her frailty. So while I did detect, after learning of Whistler’s intentions, a feeling of peace and contentment in the painting, I also felt the feeling of sadness that a child has when the realize they don’t have very much time left with their parent.
The last piece, though it breaks from the vaguely chronological order of the show, is arguably the most powerful depiction of mother and son, not just in the show, but ever. Michelangelo’s Pieta, carved from Carrara marble, completed in 1499, depicts every parent’s worst nightmare, the death of a child. Mary holds Jesus’ lifeless body on her lap after the Crucifixion, cradling him in the same way she has been shown cradling Jesus as an infant. Her palms are turned upward as if asking why God would take her son from her, especially in such a violent way.
Her face, a picture of numbness and vulnerability, combined with the body language of the two figures creates a sense of a very natural relationship, and shows the bond that was shared between Mary and her son. This piece evokes a very strong reaction in all viewers, of despair and empathy. Regardless of religious background, people have been known to break down into tears at the sight of Pieta, struck by what it would feel like to lose a child. Storge is meant to elicit a strong reaction in all viewers, not just parents.
The pieces chosen for this exhibit were meant to show the best and worst events that could occur during parenthood, from cradling your toddler, to cradling your slain child. Viewers should go from craving the bond of parent and child at the beginning of the show, to feeling the loss of a child by the end of it. The artists chosen for this were mostly Impressionist, but I find the most powerful pieces, Migrant Mother by Lange and Pieta by Michelangelo, came from opposite ends of the time spectrum. This shows the timelessness of the journey of parenthood.