Thursday, December 5, 2013

Breastfeeding in Art: A Primer

Neptune Fountain, Giambologna
You've probably seen this image before, since it's been enjoying recent popularity as used in the meme "CALM YOUR TITS."  To anyone but a nursing mother, the concept for this fountain probably looks pretty ridiculous. I know I would have thought "Oh please, milk doesn't squirt out like that...." After a few impressive milky arcs across our living room, however, I see this mermaid and am reminded only that I need to go buy more nursing pads.

On the other hand, the Art History student in me is instantly intrigued: "Ooooh, a Giambologna? What period of his career was this?" So, it seems only natural that my first post is all about Breastfeeding in Art! However, since not everyone wants to approach painted and carved boobs from an academic perspective, I'm endeavoring to keep it light. Which leads me to another amazing fountain:
Artemis Fountain, Gillis van den Vliete
I'm thinking this would be a super-useful anatomical evolution for moms of multiples. Meet Artemis (or Diana), Fertility and Earth Mother goddess of the Ephesians. She was such a big deal that her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and this many-breasted portrayal of her was one of the most common. What I find most interesting about this is how being a lactating mother was actually the symbol of her fertility. To the ancients, being a mother was more than giving birth: it included the continued nurturing of children, as well.
The Origin of the Milky Way, Jacopo Tintoretto

Speaking of the ancient Greeks, they had the most amazing myth for the creation of the Milky Way: Athena brought her half-brother Heracles to Hera to nurse, but he suckled so strongly that it caused Hera pain, so she pushed him away (Too bad she didn't have Kellymom to tell her baby Heracles was probably just cluster-feeding and that her pain would subside as his latch improved....). Her milk then sprayed across the heavens and formed the Milky Way. I had no idea the Milky Way was actually named for mothers' milk! Add it to the list of things breastmilk can do: generate celestial formations.

Isis suckling Horus, Cairo
Though the myths are ancient, however, much of the surviving art that depicts them is relatively new: the above images date from the Renaissance. What about breastfeeding imagery that is contemporary with ancient mythology?

Egyptian goddess Isis was worshiped as the ideal wife and mother, commonly invoked in healing spells which were meant to draw on the properties of her milk. She is often depicted nursing her son Horus, whom you might recognize as the god with the hawk's head in his adult form (You think baby's teeth coming in are bad? Just wait until he gets his beak....). Ancient Egyptian sculpture is somewhat famously symmetrical, full of parallel and perpendicular lines, not quite the soft curves we associate with later art. However, that feature does make it pretty iconic, so keep that in mind for comparison with some other nursing sculptures....
Yashoda with the infant Krishna

Getting away from the Western tradition made me curious to see breastfeeding in Eastern art. Fortunately, there were a couple of nifty examples, like this sculpture of the Hindu god Krishna being nursed by his foster mother Yashoda, from 12th-Century India. The blurb I read about this figure says that it is "a subject rarely represented," which I take to mean that despite the abundance of breasts throughout Indian art, nursing is not frequently depicted.

Yotsuya Kaidan, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Similarly, I found only one image of a breastfeeding mother in Japanese art. This is an illustration from the Yotsuya Kaidan Ghostly Tales, apparently a very famous Japanese horror story. (Warning: this is about to get super-creepy.) In the tale, ghostly corpses return to both take revenge and enjoy pleasures they missed in life, including a mother who returns to nurse her [living] baby. Gross. There's also a wet-nurse in the story, though, so since this character appears to be decidedly alive, I'm just going to say that's her.

Jumping back to Western art, there's this pretty significant Christian holiday coming up that centers around a baby and his mother, and here, there was absolutely no shortage of breastfeeding imagery, including this painting by no less a master than Leonardo da Vinci, himself!

Madonna Litta, Leonardo da Vinci
The breastfeeding Madonna actually has a name: Maria Lactans or Maria/Virgen de la Leche. Since the resurgence of breastfeeding imagery in general online and in publication, she has become quite the hot topic. The argument is that the reluctance to show Mary with the infant Christ at her breast is to remove a vital part of her identity. Furthermore, some scholars argue that Mary's life-giving milk parallels her son's life-giving blood, further elevating the role of breastfeeding in her importance to modern Christians. On the other side of the argument are those who claim that the symbolic significance of the nursing Madonna is exaggerated due to the current "trendiness" of breastfeeding. I think it's pretty fascinating, but then I'm an art nerd, so if you're interested in reading more, check it out here.

Among the numerous examples of Maria Lactans, I also found this first example of breastfeeding art created by a female artist:
Madonna and Child, Artemisia Gentileschi

You may or may not have heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, but suffice to say that she's known for her depictions of violent murder (Judith Slaying Holofernes), rather than of motherly tenderness. Still, this was apparently one of her first (possibly the first of) paintings she completed without assistance from a man, so it's interesting and not very surprising that she chose a scene to which only a woman can truly relate.
Louise Nursing Her Child, Mary Cassatt

Like Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt was a rare woman in a man's art world, but unlike her Renaissance predecessor, she is best known for her scenes of mothers and children, and so was really in her element drawing and painting sweet images of nursing babes. What I really love about Cassatt's breastfeeding art are the subtle, personal details to which every mother can relate: the baby's hand cupping her mother's breast, or playing with her face. This nursing pair completely ignores the viewer, making the bond between them so much more palpable than in the previous examples.
Charity, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Besides Mary and other mothers, another figure who frequently appears throughout art history as a nursing woman is the allegorical character of Charity. The image is so common, in fact, that if you ever see a breastfeeding mother in a piece of Western art and it's NOT Mary, you can probably hazard a guess that you're looking at Charity. If she's got two or three infants crawling all over her, you can be absolutely certain. In the example here (which, full disclosure: I picked because it's Bouguereau and I LOVE his work), none of the babies seem to be latched in the right spot, as they're more arranged to hide the goods. Some Victorian patrons were a bit squeamish about breasts, depending on to whom they belonged and what they were doing, but it still would have been clearly understood that these were nursing children.
Landmark for Breastfeeding, D.E.

Finally, here's a piece of modern art depicting a breastfeeding mother you might recognize....

Who's that? Why, it's none other than Angelina Jolie, nursing twins! Completed in 2009, this sculpture sparked some controversy when it was unveiled, less for any offense caused by an image of a woman breastfeeding than the fact that the woman in question is a celebrity. I'm just gonna jump out here and say that I think this is kind of awesome, especially since Angelina's using a football hold on her little nurslings. What really strikes me about this sculpture, though, is that it's SO symmetrical, and full of parallel and perpendicular lines..... just like the Egyptian sculptures of Isis nursing Horus. I think it's no accident that this modern artist, Daniel Edwards, depicted Angelina in a very similar pose to that of a goddess: it's a clear statement about his view of breastfeeding mothers, at once consistent with images of nursing throughout history while at odds with modern sensibilities that suggest it should be hidden.

If you're interested in seeing more breastfeeding art, make sure to check out our Pinterest board (I went a little crazy with the pinning....), and see some of the resources I've listed below. And please, let me know in the comments which of the pieces featured here is your favorite!

Breastfeeding in Art
Maria Lactans
Female Breast as Charity
Lactating Fountains