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The Art of Breastfeeding by a Woman

Updated August 8, 2022

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The Art of Breastfeeding by a Woman essay

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The theme of motherhood and breastfeeding has been a focus of art for over 2000 years, and I will examine and evaluate three very different depictions of this theme, focusing on the social mores of the time and how breastfeeding and motherhood was viewed. The first piece is by Mary Cassatt, titled Young Mother Nursing Her Child. It was created in 1906 and was painted with the influence of the Impressionists. The second piece is a chromogenic print by contemporary artist Catherine Opie titled Self-Portrait/Nursing, which she produced in 2004. I will investigate the role and view of breastfeeding at the time each piece was created. It is important to see how these shifting views have impacted mothers in this current time period, and to discuss whether the changes have been negative or positive for our children.

Mary Cassatt painted in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. At that time women painters were not seen as important as their male counterparts, and yet Cassatt persisted in her passion to paint despite her father’s protests. Beginning with a traditional school of art in Pennsylvania, she soon became disillusioned by the slow pace and the paternalism she experienced by the teachers and male students and moved to Paris to better teach herself. Cassatt rejected society’s expectation of marriage and motherhood, and while unexpected, Cassatt showed “tenacity and a strong will in place of the so-called ‘retiring, feminine’ virtues extolled in the Victorian age” (Woman of Independent Mind).

She is best known for her “extensive series of rigorously drawn, tenderly observed, yet largely unsentimental paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child” (Biography). However, Cassatt was severely restricted by the social mores of her day; she was not allowed to paint or sketch in public venues and so was limited to private areas and moments. Her world was “dominated by the feminine—the domestic sphere or anywhere woman played a major role beyond the unwelcome gaze of strangers” (Woman of Independent Mind). It was for this reason, and not by choice, that Cassatt turned to painting her “signature subjects (which) were portraits of women and portrayals of mothers and children caught in everyday moments” (Mary Cassatt Artist). Even so her subject matter was often devalued as being “quintessentially feminine” (Mary Cassatt) although her critics had high regard for her “considerable technical skill and psychological insight to her subject matter” (Mary Cassatt). A reviewer at a 1893 solo exhibition said, ”No painter has seen with so much feeling, nor has anyone, with such convincing art, translated into canvas the poem of the family” (Mary Cassatt New World).

Young Mother was painted in the early years of the 20th century. Although Cassatt divorced herself from the Impressionist movement two decades prior, this painting is reminiscent of the influence by her mentor Degas. Cassatt uses light brush strokes to create this moment in time, utilizing a symmetrically balanced focal point in the center of the painting, with mother and child seen in the positive space and the background in the negative. There are impressions of a detailed pattern in the mother’s robes, and a richness seen in the folds of her dress. The background is merely suggestive with the only detail seen in a tabletop with planter and foliage. The viewer’s gaze follows that of the mother’s down to the child’s face, and then down the child’s body to his toes. Like all of her mother and child studies, Cassatt paints respectfully and almost with a reverence, while also avoiding cloying sentimentality.

Despite the social strictures placed on Cassatt and women in general, breastfeeding was considered an elevated art in the late 1800’s, having be wrested from the past practice of using wet nurses among the upper classes. During the Victorian Age, “breastfeeding your own child became a central measure of your worth as a mother. Cultural constructions of femininity became highly centered on motherhood and the special bond between a mother and her children” (Samakow). As such, breastfeeding as a subject of art was considered appropriate and pleasing, and caused no public outcry. It is possible that her domestic paintings may have been popular because they fit a particular social narrative: “they filled a societal need to idealize women’s domestic roles at a time when many women were, in fact, beginning to take an interest in voting rights, dress reform, higher education, and social equality” ( Mary Cassatt American).

Catherine Opie is a contemporary photography artist, well known for her “quietly submissive” (Levy) photographs that depict people and the world around us in a way that she says “reimage(s) something that’s iconic” (Levy). She is a tenured professor at U.C.L.A. and currently has four floors dedicated to her work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, NY. Opie is a child of the 70’s, with an on-the-surface childhood steeped in Norman Rockwell traditions, but with an under belly of abuse and dysfunctionality. She began her career as a young child after doing a book report on Lewis Hines. “He made the first photographs that actually created a change in laws and policies, and I just realized how important photography really is”, Opie said (Levy). Opie’s work careens from empty freeways to portraits of her S&M and LGBT community to posh photographs of Elizabeth Taylor’s possessions. In 1999, Opie made a conscious choice to have a child, despite being gay, despite being unmarried. In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, she said, “I was, like, why can’t I be butch and have a baby? Why can’t I acknowledge the fact that I’m a biological woman and I have a vagina that can do shit” (Levy).

At the time Opie bore her son, breastfeeding was once again in favor, however, the sight of breasts was considered nasty and disgusting. The previous decades in the 20th century had seen a rise of bottle fed babies for several reasons: The emancipation of women, the Industrial Revolution and the necessity for more mothers to work; the invention of artificial formula; and ironically, the advent of pediatrics as a medical specialty (Thulier). According to Amy Bentley, “The sexuality of the breastfeeding already underway by the 19th century, was accelerated by the World War II pinup girl poster, postwar soft porn such as Playboy magazine, and the popularity of such Hollywood icons as Marilyn Monroe.” In essence, the breast had become more the purview of men and advertisers instead of the women on whom they rested.

Mothers were good if they breastfed their babies, but bad if they exposed their breasts for that purpose. The fight over a mother’s right to breastfeed her child wherever and whenever she needed entered the political arena until U.S. Public Law 106-58 Sec. 647 was enacted in 1999, specifically providing that ‘a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location ( Since then, all fifty states have passed legislation allowing for public breastfeeding. Even so, there continue to be acts of public humiliation and harassment of nursing mothers, and many companies have faced the wrath of nursing moms after demanding a nursing mother move to a restroom or dressing room, despite laws to the contrary.

It within this context that Opie created Self-Portrait/Nursing, a chromogenic print showing herself nursing her son, skin to skin. Opie chose to portray herself in the nude, her flesh and that of her son starkly lit and hiding nothing of her past, including an old scratched scar branding her “Pervert”. Opie also uses mother and child as her positive space with the less detailed background the negative. Her piece is balanced asymmetrically, and as in Young Mother, one’s gaze follows mother’s eyes to the child’s and then across to his toes. This piece is full of soft curves in their bodies, with her arms encircling her child and echoing the roundness of their features. There is no effort to sentimentalize the subject matter, nor beautify the mother.

As Opie is considered a contemporary artist, I reached back in time and chose Madonna and Child by Baroque painter Guido Reni painted in 1629. Reni’s Madonna and Child is an example of “Madonna lactans”, art in which Mary is shown breastfeeding Jesus. The earliest such art form is from the 2nd century, with the theme being especially popular during Medieval and Renaissance periods. Such paintings and sculptures were used for public and private devotions during which prayers were said in hopes of Mary’s intersession for the devotee. Women would pray for abundant milk and fertility, and her milk was seen as being a mystery that could produce miracles (Dorger).

A “notoriously pious and eccentric man who disliked and feared women” (Getty), Reni nevertheless remained devoted to his mother and painted glorious images of Mary and her Son. As a young man he joined the Accademia delgi Incamminata (Academy of Those Who are Making Progress), which was started by the Carraccis brothers who “set about remaking their art through the observation and mastery of nature” (Getty). Painters in this school looked back and made a concentrated study of Renaissance painters, especially Raphael, who was a great influence on Reni. Reni was also studied the art of Caravaggio. Reni was known for his “expressive language using classical linear rhythms and translucent, exquisitely delicate tone values” (Old Masters) and in his religious and mythological paintings, he “evolved a style that tempered Baroque exuberance and complexity with classical restraint” (Britannica). In his later years he created paintings with “bright tones and smooth, idealized forms” (artnet) such as the Madonna and Child I have chosen as my third work of art.

Reni painted this particular Madonna and Child using a technique he copied from Caravaggio called “tenebrism”. Tenebrism comes from the Italian word ‘tenebroso’ meaning dark, and is a form of painting defined by its use of deep and dark shadows and a well-defined play between light and dark. Another hallmark of the technique is the illumination of certain areas, usually from a single source of light (Characteristics). In this piece, Reni uses light to glorify Mary and the baby Jesus, their skin glowing with a warm luminescence. Mary gazes down at Jesus with features showing her love for the Christ-child. She is wearing simple robes in the traditional colors of red and blue, with a brown headscarf. The viewer’s look travels vertically from Mary’s face down to her left hand, which is loosely cradling Jesus. For the background Reni painted very dark drapery in deep blue, brown, grey, and black. Mary is surrounded by black, with encroaches on her within the folds of her robes.

There is no question that the mother and child pieces created by Cassatt and Opie were influenced by early painters such as Reni; all three images depict a mother breastfeeding her child as the focal point, with that figure in brighter tones than the background, as well as all having the line of sight traveling from the mother’s eyes to her child’s and then along the child’s body. In addition, the figures are shown in detail but the backgrounds are all muted, vague impressions, using the tenebrism technique or at least a nod to that.

In contrast, there is a far different emotion elicited from each piece. Whereas Cassatt’s Young Mother has a sweet feeling of love and bonding, with the mother’s breasts modestly covered, Self-Portrait/Nursing seems more defiant and in-your-face, definitely not modest. Cassatt elevates motherhood into something sublime, and Opie pushes the viewer to see her as a good mother despite her Pervert scar and naked body. The emotion of Reni’s depiction more closely resembles Cassatt’s in that motherhood is being honored, revered in Reni’s version, with none of the defiance felt in Opie’s self-portrait.

Contextually there are major differences in how breastfeeding was viewed by society at the time of each of these works. In the 17th century breastfeeding in public was seen as a normal occurrence with no societal censure, although the use of wet nurses was still in high demand, and “societal class tended to dictate breastfeeding practices. It was unusual for aristocratic women to breastfeed because the practice was considered unfashionable and because the women worried it would ruin their figures” (Stevens). In Cassatt’s time, the 19th century, women were encouraged to breastfeed their own children, a relatively recent change from the use of wet nurses among the upper classes. Motherhood was considered the pinnacle of a woman’s success, and breastfeeding was the best way to provide sustenance for babies. At the same time the advent of artificial formula and the need for more women to work away from their children meant bottle feeding was on the rise.

That era also saw breastfeeding as something done away from the public eye. Now and at the time of Opie’s contemporary creation, “Breast is Best” is a slogan exhorted by the government and medical community, while at the same time breastfeeding in public is frowned upon and women are often publicly shamed for exposing their breasts when feeding their babies. For Opie, her role as a mother is more conflicted as she, a lesbian, chose to have a child in defiance of what she seemed to think was expected of someone in her LGBT circle. Also, in her time breastfeeding was (and still is) a matter of social contention, something to be done in private, though a mother is “bad” if she doesn’t breastfeed. For example, the magazine “Babytalk” created a firestorm of criticism for a cover in 2006 that showed a model breastfeeding a baby at her bare breast. Those who complained, mainly mothers themselves, said that the photograph was “gross”(Breastfeeding in Public). Shopkeepers have removed female customers from their stores because the woman was breastfeeding in the open, restaurant goers often try to shame a breastfeeding mother into taking her child to the restroom to feed, all of which does nothing to encourage mothers to give their child the best nourishment available – mother’s milk.

The three works of art I’ve chosen show how the art of breastfeeding, as well as the art depicting breastfeeding, has changed over the last 375 years. From something holy and revered, to something encouraged but in private, to today’s “Breast is Best” slogan and the ensuing debate about breastfeeding in public, and the defiant stance of women who refuse to cave into society’s idea that breastfeeding is natural and healthy, but don’t you dare do it in public. This affects babies in this century because mothers carry a burden to breastfeed, being censured if they use a bottle, which causes anxiety and guilt, neither of which is healthy for mother or child.

Eleanor Johnson, an Associate Professor of English at Columbia University makes a great comparison when she names breastfeeding mothers “Madonna’s, and those who don’t, or those who dare breastfeed in public, as “whores” (Johnson). She powerfully summed up the current battle for motherhood when she wrote, “Let’s be honest with ourselves when we try to understand what we’re really talking about when we talk about breastfeeding. We’re not really talking about children. We’re talking about women’s rights to use their time as they desire. We’re talking about nursing mothers’ rights to move freely through their social world, either with an infant attached to their breast, or without. We’re talking about who gets to have a life away from the home. And we’re talking about who gets to be a virgin and who gets to be a whore” (Johnson).

The Art of Breastfeeding by a Woman essay

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The Art of Breastfeeding by a Woman. (2022, Aug 08). Retrieved from