With Mother’s Day behind us there’s no better time to celebrate the strong, creative women that surround us. From writers to painters, inspiring female artists from each and every decade have inspired us with their contributions and have made society a better place. This infographic from InvaluableInvaluable celebrates famous mothers in art and literature and their legacies. Read the “motherly advice” from photographer Dorothea Lange, painter Alice Neel and many more influential women!
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunÉlisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is one of the finest 18th century French painters and is touted as the most important female artist of her time. Throughout the course of her career, she created over 600 portraits and 200 landscapes. These achievements are especially impressive given how rare both successful female painters and working mothers were during this time period.
Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)
Dorothea LangeDorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer best known for her portraits of displaced farmers taken during the Great Depression. Much of her work in the 1930s was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in order to document the economic distress faced by the nation’s agricultural workers and highlight the agency’s relief programs. Her photos serve as an example of art being created with the goal of advancing public policy in the United States.
Alice Neel (1900–1984)
Alice NeelAlice Neel is known for portraits of family, friends and strangers that incorporate an expressive use of color and line. Her paintings are beloved for their emotional intensity. One of her famous works is a portraitportrait of Linda Nochlin and her daughter. In the piece, she uses a bright color palette and crude brushstrokes to juxtapose the mother’s intense gaze with the child’s earnest expression. A mother of four herself, Neel’s paintings show the complex emotions that accompany childhood, portraying children as unique, complicated individuals.
Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)
Louise Bourgeois’sLouise Bourgeois’s art is remembered for its focus on three-dimensional forms and personal themes around the body, desire and the unconscious. For Bourgeois, creating art was a cathartic process. Many works confront her anxiety, which stemmed in part from the competing burdens of motherhood and artistic creation.
Maya Angelou (1928–2014)
Maya AngelouMaya Angelou was an acclaimed poet, storyteller, singer and activist. She wrote 36 books over the course of her career, and her most famous works include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Still I Rise, and Mom & Me & Mom. Often, her message centers around a belief that mankind is more alike than different.
Sylvia Plath (1932–1963)
Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known poets of the 20th century. Her poems explore themes of mental illness, anguish and womanhood. Her work is autobiographical in nature and discusses her own experiences with mental illness, her constant desire for perfection, her troubled marriage, and her relationship with her authoritarian father.
Toni Morrison (1931–present)
Toni Morrison is one of the greatest authors in American history. She is a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist best known for her depiction of the black female experience in literature. Her works discuss the everyday hardships of African Americans and examine the structural inequities that exist for people of color in America. Her novels explore characters that struggle to understand their cultural identity and to find themselves. Morrison’s works contain elements of fantasy and a poetic style that give them a unique texture and strength.
Yoko Ono (1933–present)
Yoko OnoYoko Ono is a multimedia artist, singer, songwriter, performance artist and activist. She has had a diverse career with successful pieces across a variety of mediums. She is a pioneer of performance art, drawing inspiration from multiple sources including Zen Buddhism and the DadaDada movement.
In addition to celebrating the mothers whose contributions directly impacted the course of art history, it’s also important to highlight the artists whose works celebrate the joys, trials, and everyday experiences of motherhood. Throughout history, artists across mediums have been inspired by the fundamental relationship between mother and child.
Mary CassattMary Cassatt is the most well-known artist who focused on the experience of being a mother. Though she never had children of her own, her work is famous for its portrayals of mothers dressing, bathing, and caring for their children. Other female painterspainters that highlighted the relationship between mother and child include Paula Modersohn-BeckerPaula Modersohn-Becker and Alice Neel, both of whom painted portraits of mothers and children and their unique bond.
For centuries, maternal figures have been represented in sculpturesculpture. Notable examples span religious art from the Renaissance, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, to more abstract representations like Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a bronze, stainless steel and marble sculpture in the form of a large spider.
PhotographyPhotography is often used to capture the complex emotions and social responsibilities that come with motherhood. Photographer Dorothea Lange’s work Migrant Mother is a famous example of a piece that captures the intensity of emotion that mothers experience. Though this piece became an icon of the Great Depression, it remains relatable decades later as it highlights a mother’s desperation and grit in the face of human suffering.
Literature has long been a medium used to describe and reflect on the experience of motherhood. The written word allows artists to dive deep into the meaning of maternity. Whether writers choose to reflect on the beauty of the relationship between a mother and child, or lament the struggle and sacrifice that can feel inevitable when a woman brings a child into the world, notable works have helped shape our cultural understanding of what it means to be a mother.
Special thanks to Emma Welsh from Invaluable for her contribution!