Who said that you can’t be a mother and an artist at the same time?
The patriarchy, for one, but surprisingly, a lot of female artists as well. Even artists like Mary Cassatt and Judy Chicago whose work primarily featured themes of motherhood and femininity never had children because they believed it would compromise the quality of their art. But there were actually a handful of successful female artists who were also pretty good mothers, they just seldom get the credit for doing both. For Mother’s Day -which should really be everyday- we’re celebrating our favorite badass moms who significantly impacted the art world.
Madonna and Child, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613
Artemisia Gentileschi had one daughter with two names- Prudentia (after her mother who passed away early in Artemisia’s childhood) and Palmira. She had her daughter very early on in her career and continued to paint up until her death when her daughter was well into adulthood. Like her mother, Prudentia/Palmira also became a painter, though none of her works are currently known.
Self-Portrait, Judith Leyster, 1630
Not too much is known about Judith Leyster. She didn’t really get recognition for her paintings for a while as they were usually credited to the “Wife of Molenaer” who was a more famous painter at the time. Leyster had five children with Molenaer, but only two survived into adulthood. With the information on her surviving dated works, it looks like Leyster wasn’t as prolific once she got married and had children, but she still continued to paint up until a few years before her death in 1660.
“The beauty of her heavenly face, that expressed benevolence and goodness, and whose features were so regular and delicate, the loveliness of her figure, neck, and arms, the exquisite freshness of her complexion – all was enchanting beyond anything imaginable”
-Vigee le Brun describing her daughter in her diary.
Self Portrait with her Daughter Julie, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1786
Self Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1789
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun had one child, Jeanne Julie Louise, who she nicknamed “Brunette.” Vigee Le Brun’s first self portrait of her and Julie caused a scandal when it was exhibited simply because she was depicted smiling open-mouthed -- how dare she be visibly happy with her child?! During the French Revolution, Vigee Le Brun fled France with Julie to Italy, Austria, and then finally Russia. It was in Russia that their relationship crumbled; Julie married a man that her mother strongly disapproved of, and Elisabeth Louise then shunned her from her life, refusing to provide for her daughter when both were back in France. It's hard to read that the two had such a strained relationship when looking at these adorable self-portraits.
Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter, Berthe Morisot, 1885
Berthe Morisot and her daughter, Pierre Auguste-Renoir, 1894
Apparently Julie is a popular name for the daughters of female artists. Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot married Edouard Manet’s younger brother Eugene and had her only child Julie Manet, who often posted as a model for Morisot and other Impressionists. When Julie was 16 she became ill with influenza (get your shots people!). Morisot eventually got the same infection by taking care of Julie and subsequently died not long after. Morisot’s devotion to her daughter literally killed her.
Suzanne Valadon with her son Maurice Utrillo, 1889
Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo, 1930
Suzanne Valadon wasn’t just a mom, she was a single mom! She had her son Maurice when she was an 18-year-old model for artists. Her mother Madeleine helped take care of Maurice, and the two often served as models for Valadon’s domestic sketches that gave her recognition and critical acclaim. Maurice was a troubled alcoholic suffering from mental illness, and it was his mother who encouraged him to try painting. Not too long after, Maurice ended up being a successful artist himself! Mother truly knows best.
“My studio was a jumble of children, rocks, sculptures, trees, importunate flowers, and washing.”
Barbara Hepworth with her son Paul, 1929
The Hepworth triplets: Simon, Rachel, and Sarah, 1937
Barbara Hepworth with her daughters Rachel and Sarah, 1965
Barbara Hepworth was the ultimate mom/artist. She raised four children while working along her husband Ben Nicholson in the St. Ives artists’ colony. She often wrote about how being a mother and an artist was never a conflicting process and that having a family actually improved the quality of her sculptures. Her eldest son Paul was killed in a plane crash in 1953, prompting a devastated Hepworth to take a trip to Greece with a good friend. When she came back, her sculptures had a distinctly Greek influence. Her son Simon was also an artist, but died young from alcoholism. Her daughter Sarah married Sir Alan Bowness, former director of the Tate Gallery. Both she and her sister Rachel are in charge of their mother’s estate.
“They had two children fairly quickly, then a third one shortly thereafter. There was no room, really, to do sculpture in the apartment. So she painted.”
-Jerry Gorovoy, assistant to Louise Bourgeois
With her three sons in Easton, CT, 1945
Louise Bourgeois had three children within the span of three years! She and her husband Robert Goldwater adopted Michel from France in 1939, then she gave birth to Jean-Louise in 1940 and Alain in 1941. Despite having her hands and her house full, she didn’t give up on her artwork and continued to create paintings, drawings, and sculptures until her death in 2010. She is survived by her sons Alain and Jean-Louise, an architectural expert on Adobe who recently donated his $4 million house to Native Americans as a meeting house. Louise would have been proud.
“Mothers are not supposed to give guidance.”
Yoko Ono and John Lennon with their children from previous marriages, Julian Lennon and Kyoko Chan Cox
Yoko Ono and John Lennon with their son Sean Lennon
Avant-garde artist Yoko Ono had her daughter Kyoko with her second husband Anthony Cox. Not longer after she filed for divorce and met John Lennon. When Kyoko was eight, she and Cox disappeared in the middle of a custody battle; Ono was unable to find Kyojo until she was 35. Lennon and Ono had one child, Sean Lennon, who is currently pursuing music with his band “The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger.”
“When my daughter was young, she thought all electronic signs were mine.”
Jenny Holzer with her family in the Central Park Zoo, 1990
Jenny Holzer with Lili Holzer-Grier, 2011
Jenny Holzer gave birth to Lili Holzer (now Holzer-Grier) in 1989. Her daughter’s birth inspired Holzer’s works Laments and Truism 4 (Mother and Child) in 1990. Lili Holzer-Grier is now a successful photographer based in New York, where her mother also currently lives. Both Holzer's and her daughter’s artwork portray American hypocrisy and injustice.
“My mother is a mother. And an artist. And the two never felt like they were incompatible.”
-Octavia Brugel on her mother Kara Walker
Kara Walker with baby Octavia
Kara Walker and Octavia in 2016
Kara Walker had her daughter Octavia early in her career, showing us that it really isn’t impossible to gain international fame in the art world while raising a child. Walker incorporated her daughter’s voice into 8 Possible Beginnings to help demonstrate how the heritage of American slavery affects women of color as artists. Octavia is now a photographer studying at Oberlin College.
Of course, you don’t have to be a successful artist to be a successful mom. Shout-out to all mothers out there who are able to juggle both their careers and their children. And an additional thanks to mothers everywhere for being awesome women and continually inspiring us all to produce and admire great art. “Mom” upside-down spells “wow” for a reason! Now go call your mom and tell her you love her.