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Bessie Potter Vonnoh's A Young Mother

A Young Mother, by American artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872 - 1955), is an extraordinary visual representation of a symbiotic union between mother and child. The statuette’s intimate arrangement of forms, from the blanket that drapes the rocking chair and melds into the mother’s skirt and further into the baby’s swaddle cloth, to the indistinct faces of the figures, provides a composition in which boundaries from form to form are erased, as though to return the child to the flesh from which it came. Moreover, due to the muted, vague details of the work, such as the faint grooves used to describe the baby’s eyes, and the unambiguous subject matter, it can be assumed that this is not a sculpture of the artist’s personal experience, but of the physical act of being a mother. In that, physical description, such as the mother’s swept up hair, her open-necked dress, her stylized, grasping hands, and her foot so gently propped up on a stool, is read secondary to the perceived emotional bond between mother and child. The way in which the mother tenderly cradles her child and how she affectionately gazes downward takes precedence over the tangible details of the work. It is evident that Vonnoh “sacrificed physical detail for feeling”[i] in her execution of A Young Mother to arrive at its specific expressive content.

Clearly, the expressive content of the work is engendered by techniques implemented by the artist. For instance, in her plastic, impressionistic handling of form and surface, Vonnoh was able to create a compositional arrangement that would lend itself to expression both materially and emotionally.[ii] Indeed, the blanket, which functions to connect all forms, providing that sense of union between mother and child, softens the sculpture emotionally, while, materially, allowing a sense of bodily form to appear beneath the heavy folds of fabric. The specific expressive content of A Young Mother is also attributable to medium. Cast in bronze in 1906 by Roman Bronze Works foundry, the Metropolitan Museum’s cast of A Young Mother, authenticated by the artist, is the sixth version out of an estimated thirty casts of the statuette. The luster and durability of bronze make it the ideal medium for small sculpture that is intended to be picked up, handled, and admired from many viewpoints.[iii] Although, in this case, physical contact with the work is prohibited, the object’s innate attainability, in its size and tightly built structure, make for a perceptible connection with the work, which is highly emotional. Through the utilization of bronze and its possibilities of physical interaction, the notion that this sculpture is not of the artist’s personal experience, but of the physical act of being a mother is further expressed.

A Young Mother is particularly engaging not only due to its size, medium, and expressive content, but also because of its excellent physical condition. As the statuette’s polished surface is still in tact, it can be assumed this cast has been given a chemical patina to hide any imperfections and to protect the bronze. Furthermore, signature, date, and cast number, all inscribed by the artist on top of the base of the sculpture, remain perfectly legible; it appears that although this area is vulnerable to chipping, no cracking has occurred. The sophistication and maturity of the work, even in the way in which it has remained in fine condition, is a testament to Vonnoh’s progressive and inspired taste.

A Young Mother, which defined Vonnoh’s artistic identity to date[iv], synthesizes impressionistic handling of form with realistic emotion to produce one of the most sensitive studies of the mother-and-child theme in American sculpture.[v] This sculptural representation, impressionistic in style and subject matter, is proof that the depiction of American, everyday, domestic life can produce meaningful expression. It is important to note that the artist’s oeuvre reflects a familiarity with French Impressionism, specifically that of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. In A Young Mother, the intensity of maternal affection within an impressionistic genre scene is echoed in the paintings of Mary Cassatt. However, expressing this notion via the heavy physicality of the sculptural medium is unique to Vonnoh. The introduction of A Young Mother caused Vonnoh’s name to be synonymous with sculptural representations of motherhood.[vi] The artist writes, “What I wanted was to look for beauty in the every-day world, to catch the job and swing of modern American life.”[vii] In 1896, Vonnoh modeled her first treatment of the mother-and-child theme, A Young Mother, which is an embodiment of the artist’s oeuvre.

Vonnoh’s artistic career always focused on the production of genre statuettes depicting types not individuals, specifically of domestic and feminine subjects, which not only captured a refined segment of turn-of-the-century society but also contributed to the vitalization of small bronze sculpture in America.[viii] The immediate critical reception and popularity of A Young Mother and the artist’s genre pieces produced thereafter, was fueled by their exhibition at numerous museums, academies, and sculptural societies. Additional proof of Vonnoh’s artistic success is the large editions of casts produced by Roman Bronze Works in the beginning years of the twentieth century. The Metropolitan Museum’s 1906 acquisition of A Young Mother by the Rogers Fund, along with a few other similar compositions by Vonnoh, attest to the high esteem in which the artist and her works were held, as she was then represented more than any other woman sculptor.[ix] According to the artist, replicas of A Young Mother are in an estimated thirty museum collections nationwide, among them replicas in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; and Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego.[x]

 

 

 

[i] "Bessie Potter Vonnoh: A Young Mother (06.306)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abrc/ho_06.306.htm (October 2006)

[ii]Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed.

Thayer Tolles, Vol. II, II vols. (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 1999), 559.

[iii]Jane Bassett and Peggy Fogelman, Looking at European Sculpture: A Guide to Technical

Terms (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997), 13.

[iv] Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 558.

[v] Ibid., 559.

[vi] "Bessie Potter Vonnoh: A Young Mother (06.306)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

[vii] Ibid., 558.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., 559.

[x] Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Sculpture; a catalogue of the collection of the

Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. Albert TenEyck Gardner, (Greenwich, Conn: New York Graphic Society,  1965). 112.

Work Cited

Bassett, Jane and Fogelman, Peggy, Looking at European Sculpture: A Guide to Technical

Terms (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997). 

"Bessie Potter Vonnoh: A Young Mother (06.306)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abrc/ho_06.306.htm (October 2006)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed.

Thayer Tolles, Vol. II, II vols. (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 1999-). 558-560.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Sculpture; a catalogue of the collection of the

Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. Albert TenEyck Gardner, (Greenwich, Conn: New York Graphic Society,  1965). 112.

 

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