Mothers in Art.

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James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black. 1871.

What defines masculinity and femininity? This is a question of ancient measures.

This discussion is as current today as it has always been. What defines a man as masculine? Or simply broken down, what define a man? The representation of the sexes is something that has been widely discussed throughout history through the mediums of literature, art and fashion, just to mention a few. Throughout time these representations all share common grounds in the categorization and the need to identify and label the sexes.

For centuries women have been considered submissive and therefore labeled the weaker sex. Underneath the complexity of this label lies the argument that poses  for the discussions whether women really are the weaker sex by nature or because of the brand they have been imposed to carry almost since the beginning of time. That women’s’ main role has been the one in the domestic sphere, bearing children and serving the man of the household is certainly not a recent observation. There is no need to look too far back on history to see the pattern of the representation of submissive women in art. In Linda Nochlin’s book Representing Womenfrom 1999[1] she critiques the realists, the impressionists and the post-impressionist such as Jean-Francois Milles, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas and even Mary Cassatt in their representation of women as disempowered, objectified and pacified. She argues the point that women are constantly depicted, intentionally or not, either exaggerated sexualized or purified. What Nochlin does is that she breaks down the history of femininity and in this case feminist art-history and visual representation, into the study of gender, politics and class. This study of the art produced at this stage of history then becomes the representation of society and a starting-point in the discussion of what defines femininity. At a stage as early as this into the discussion it can already be established that femininity is not defined by women themselves but the ones choosing to represent them. Then there is the other aspect that needs to be established; the inspiration of the artist or scholar to depict women in such a manner, does this ‘ideal’ come from women themselves, previous art or the image society wants to project?


[1] Nochlin, Linda. Representing Women. (79). New York, Thames & Hudson. 1999.

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