THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
by Sheila Heti
I Didn't Like Sitting With the Rattle for Hours:
On the Motherhood Paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker and Mary Cassatt
Gustave Flaubert wrote to his lover, Louise Colet, after she visited his Paris apartment three times and was becoming, he felt, a real nuisance: Madame... I was not in; and since I greatly fear that further persistence on your side would expose you to affronts from mine, good manners force me to warn you: I shall never be in.
When I read this, I was instantly reminded of Julian Casablancas of The Strokes singing (more than a hundred years later) Last Nite, in response to a lover who has expressed to him that it turns me off / when I feel left out. Before walkin’ out that door of her apartment, he notes churlishly. See, people they don’t understand / No, girlfriends, they can’t understand / Your grandsons, they won’t understand / And me, I ain’t ever gonna understand.
The I shall never be in from the young male writer becomes the equally willful I ain’t ever gonna understand from the young male singer. Their blitheness is what strikes me most painfully, and their certainty about how in rejecting these women, nothing is lost. They turn their backs with such supreme nonchalance. I’m reminded of how, when I was younger, I once confessed to my father that I was afraid of breaking up with my boyfriend, because I didn’t want to hurt him. He said, A man would never think like that. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be so callous (although I’m sure there are men who have found me just as callous; and male friends have denied that my father had anything insightful to say about their gender—that he could only have been speaking for himself). I admit that I found Casablancas’s performance of Last Nite sexy. How many times have I watched that video, and those dead eyes? At certain times in life, it’s compelling to be close to a person who treats you like nothing—or (maybe more accurately) to play at being nothing; for a short while, to relax into being nothing, when the rest of life is such a struggle for its opposite: to be something , for the other to be in, to understand. Being acknowledged is such an uphill struggle. Why does it have to be so hard?
* * *
The brilliant early 20th century painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, is much better known in Germany than here. In Germany, you can find her work on postcards and magnets. Her pictures are shown to schoolchildren. She has her own museum in Bremen. (So writes a recent biographer, the French-born Marie Darrieussecq.) She was the first documented woman to paint herself nude. She was close friends with Rilke. Before becoming pregnant, she left her husband, Otto, and fled to Paris to work in a more dedicated way than she felt she could while living with him (also a painter) isolated for too long in a countryside artist colony. In her letters to him, she repeatedly asks him to stop begging for her return:
That I don’t give in is not cruelty or hardness on my part. This is very hard for me. I’m doing so only in the first belief that if I don’t test myself now, after half a year I’d be torturing you again. Try to get used to the possibility of the thought that our lives can go on without each other.
About a month later, her letters have been weaned of entreaties to Otto to accept her decision, and are filled instead with her happy occupation:
I’m drawing regularly. It makes me happy realizing how much I can learn here... Here my paintings look dark and muddy. I have to achieve a much purer colour... It’s marvellous in the evenings, the romantic backdrop to a romantic play... My atelier is wholesome and bright, with a few pieces of pine furniture—a wardrobe and a cot to sleep on...
And a month later, in April 1906:
I can’t come to you now, I can’t. And I don’t want to meet you in any other place, either...
One is certain she will never return. Letters are exchanged—she does not want to have a child with him, then she apologizes and says she wrote it in haste. He goes to join her in Paris for six months. He impregnates her. She becomes the first documented woman to paint a naked portrait of herself, pregnant.
As Marie Darrieussecq describes it in her wonderful and poetic, Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn Becker (trans. Penny Hueston; The MIT Press, 2017), the artist gives birth to her first child, Mathilde Modersohn on November 2, 1907. She is thirty-one years old. It’s a difficult birth that involves forceps and chloroform, and she is prescribed bed rest to heal. As Darrieussecq writes:
Eighteen days later, Paula is finally allowed to get up. A little party is organized. She asks for a mirror at the end of her bed, braids her hair into a crown, pins some roses to her housecoat. The house is overflowing with flowers and candles; everything is lit up. Paula stands, and then falls to the floor. She dies of an embolism, from lying down too long. As she collapses, she says, “Schade.” Her last word. “A pity.”
In the closing pages of her book, Darrieussecq wonders, Why is she only known in Germany? Why has her city, Paris, never had an exhibition of her work? She is German, of course, but no more so than Picasso is Spanish or Modigliani Italian. Does the fact that her life’s work was not complete constitute such an insurmountable obstacle? Or do we have to assume that the fact she was a woman stopped her at the border? Do we have to assume that she did not have her universal visa?
Darrieussecq doesn’t propose an answer.
* * *
I don’t want to talk any more about the fates Paula Modersohn-Becker suffered because she was a woman: dying from childbirth, her battles to be taken seriously by her teachers, how she only sold three paintings in her lifetime.
I don’t want to talk about the authority figures who said of her canvases, I won’t ever understand. Or about how she tried (and ultimately failed) to say to her husband, I shall never be in —finally relenting to his wish for reconciliation, and writing to her sister, I realized that I am not the sort of woman to stand alone in life... (Could that be true? Or was that just one part of the self justifying itself to another part of the self?) Her husband didn’t kill her. Motherhood didn’t kill her. (As much as I am tempted to think these things). An accident of her body killed her. (Or as Rilke put it in his “Requiem for a Friend”: And so you died as women used to die... the old-fashioned death of women in labor, who try to close themselves again but can’t, because that ancient darkness which they have also given birth to returns for them... ) It’s clear that had Paula lived, she would have painted for many more years, as a wife and a mother.
Let’s move past her biography. For more, read Darrieussecq’s book, or seek out The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker (trans. J. Diane Radycki; The Scarecrow Press, 1980) which, among other things, is an excellent depiction of what it feels like to be a young artist, newly ecstatic in one’s own craft:
It’s evening. I’m alone and I’ve painted myself again. I have a long day behind me and I’m permitting myself to be bone tired. So don’t ask too much from my soul, which is still preoccupied with color.
* * *
Modersohn-Becker’s four hundred paintings and more than a thousand graphic works and drawings can be divided into various categories: children; women; mothers with children; self-portraits; landscapes (there are fewer of these, and her style in painting these is less committed, less consistent); and men (same). It is her women and her children and her women-with-children and her self-portraits that seem best to me. She painted from models—many of them peasant women who lived near the artist colony in rural Worpswede, where she remained for many years.
There is, for example, her Kneeling Mother and Child (1907) , in which a woman whose shapes are pronounced, solid, almost blocky, kneels on a white circle, surrounded by fallen apples. This kneeling is hardly a natural position for breast-feeding: the painting represents a symbolic order. The woman holds her child to her breast the way the tree might have held its apples: they are one enclosed life-system. The mother’s face is in shadow, while her breasts are lit, suggesting that it is her body separate from her individuality that matters.
Modersohn-Becker eventually gave birth, but not only because her husband returned for her to Paris and got her pregnant. She was fascinated with the bond between mother and child, and is one of the most interesting painters of this relationship. Some would say that Mary Cassatt should get this crown. I won’t object—she is a master, too. Well, there can be two crowns. There can be a hundred crowns.
Cassatt, like Modersohn-Becker, painted as a non-mother. Her mother-and-child paintings often express a gentle, tired tolerance for the role—for being touched in awkward places by the child (like under the chin). In many pictures, such as Mother and Children (1901), the mother is often gazing off into nowhere—not in a dreamy way, but (as I read it) because gazing off is the only way to capture a few moments for herself while clutched in an embrace. Looking at her maternity paintings, I can feel the minutes slowly passing, the seconds ticking tediously by, in which one is permitted to do nothing but be there.
I am writing this as a woman who doesn’t have (and mostly doesn’t want) children. To better understand how to simply be there might be something grand; I think of the writer Sarah Manguso. Several years ago, she published a book called Ongoingness (Graywolf Press, 2015) about two simultaneous occurrences in her life: becoming a mother, and her increasing disinterest in maintaining the meticulous daily journal she kept for decades before her son was born. Here she describes the ontological shift that accompanied her motherhood:
In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time. I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and the milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him. My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life.
In both Modersohn-Becker’s and Cassatt’s paintings of mother-and-child, the women seem as Manguso describes: backdrops to the life of the child. While in Cassatt’s paintings, the experience of being a backdrop is often dull, Modersohn-Becker’s mothers feel a glad and resolved devotion. Her mothers are bountiful—their giving is fluid, unreserved; perhaps it’s because Modersohn-Becker wanted children; idealized that future. Cassatt even refused to marry; she had no such dreams.
* * *
In Regretting Motherhood (North Atlantic Books, 2017) , the Israeli sociologist Orna Donath speaks to thirty-six women about their regrets at having children. Donath makes it very clear that she is not interested in ambivalence in this study: There are women who experience ambivalent feelings but do not regret becoming mothers, and there are mothers who regret becoming mothers and are not ambivalent about motherhood. She writes that conflating ambivalence and regret, treating them as though they are one and the same, obviates the possibility of listening to what women who lament becoming mothers have to say.
The women she spoke to (all are quoted anonymously) had children because it was expected of them—by society, by husbands, by themselves. They weren’t able to say—it didn’t occur to them to say, of motherhood—I ain’t ever. I shall never. Donath credits their acquiescence to the belief that life is fundamentally a series of progressive stages...a roadmap every person must follow. There are “right” events and a “right” series for them to occur. They are to be performed at the “right” time, with dictates about what are the right emotions to feel at each life event. Her remarkable book exposes what it sounds like when a person feels the wrong emotions in the face of motherhood.
Tirtza, a mother of two grown children, and a grandmother, says that her choice to breed was a catastrophe. I immediately saw that it is not for me. And not only that it is not for me: it is the nightmare of my life.
Edith, a mother of four grown children, and a grandmother, reveals that she would never have children over again. For what? It is a real waste of time. Total. How many pleasant moments are there? There are, it’s true, there are pleasant moments. But compared to what it demands?
Helen, the mother of two teenagers, reveals what I see in Cassatt’s paintings of a woman who chose not to bind her life with a husband or a child. I didn’t like it. I didn’t. I didn’t like the cooing, or sitting with the rattle for hours. I didn’t enjoy sitting for hours and reading the same story or hearing the same song. I suffered. Truly suffered. That’s it—no more being alone, no more freedom in your head.
How many women are there in the world who feel as they do? Who knows?
* * *
While Mary Cassatt’s paintings can be read in many ways, they are typically interpreted sentimentally, as though the woman-who-becomes-mother loses nothing; as if motherhood is an equation that can result in zero loss because of what the mother has gained. Art historian Roann Barris maintains that the predominance of mother-and-child in Cassatt’s work is a message about the maternal bond as a form of emotional and sensual nurturing , and the mother-child status as a close and dominant unit.1 But Barris doesn’t ask whether Cassatt’s paintings of a close and dominant unit might express anything of the mother’s claustrophobia, the feeling, as Helen put it, of no more being alone. Even more presumptuous is a psychoanalytic paper on Cassatt which claims that by painting the mother-child theme, she substituted her own wishes to become a mother ... By developing her talent, she communicated her wish to be a mother.2
By contrast, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock sees, in Cassatt’s oeuvre, femininity as it is induced, acquired and ritualized from youth through motherhood to old age.3 The idea of motherhood as induced, acquired and ritualized is far from a sentimental reading which sees maternity as natural, always desired, and a joy. Bourgeois female painters like Cassatt and (ultimately) Modersohn-Becker and their subjects couldn’t embody the freedom of men. Apart from entertainments in the city, enjoyed with family and men, they were confined to feminine spaces and, Pollock writes, spaces of labor... especially those involving child-care . Her assertion that child-care is labour contrasts with the sentiment of the prominent 19th century critic, J.K. Huysmans, who blindly praised Cassatt’s ability to express in her mother-child paintings the happy contentment, the quiet friendliness, of an interior.4
One indication of an artist’s greatness is her work’s ability to absorb multiple and even contradictory readings. Is Cassatt depicting the greatest pleasure and intimacy possible for our species, or patient forbearance in the face of great tedium, and the desperate ache of one’s unlived life as the repetitive tasks of nurturance are dutifully performed? I see the mother in Cassatt’s Breakfast in Bed (1897) as tired and reluctant to begin her day and duties. While the mother wraps her child in her arms, she keeps her head defiantly on the pillow, casting her eyes sideways, somewhat resentful. Her coffee cup is near, but far enough away that, given her embrace, it will not be easy to grasp and drink from. Her child is plump, alert, and oblivious to her mother, while the mother gives off the feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion.
In Picasso’s mother-and-childs, no reluctance towards the role haunts the woman’s eyes. There is also no submission. His mothers are more of an active and purposeful participant in the dyad; they are equal actors to the child. This is unlike the mother-and-child depictions of Manguso, Cassatt and Modersohn-Becker, in which there is a profound imbalance between mother and child—one is the actor, while the other is the background for the child’s action: it’s an ontological match made of difference.
One way Cassatt emphasizes this difference is by hiding the mother’s face while revealing the child’s, as in Maternal Kiss (1896) — a pose which suggests the perhaps inevitable effacement of the woman’s separate self in maternity—her self subsumed both by the child and her new relation as background. Might this effacement be what Cassatt feared would happen to her (and her vocation) if she succumbed to motherhood? What do we see of the woman in this painting but her rosy-red ear and rose-red cheek, her well-kept hair, and the yellow bustle of her sleeve? We do not see the kiss: we have to take the painter’s word for it. The child is not reacting to it, or if she is, she is reacting by not reacting. And what does the mother think or feel? We do not know. She could be crying. Her feelings are hidden from us.
The mother’s face hidden reminds me of one of Donath’s subjects, who remarks of her own struggle being a mother: It’s very painful when a person—doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman—loses his life and is living-dead. He just walks around and is in a place he cannot leave... It’s a tragedy and everyone acts as though we are experiencing some fun challenge. Terrible.
Another: No one can guess it about me. I may not be a commendable mother but I am a mother who takes care of her children: They are being nourished and loved. They do not suffer from emotional neglect. So no one can tell. And if one can’t tell this about me, then it’s impossible to know it of anyone else.
It upsets me to see Cassatt still largely misunderstood by a culture so enchanted by myths of motherhood that it cannot see or read the faces of the mothers she painted, any more than it can see and read the faces of the mothers in the street.
- Roann Barris, “Mary Cassatt: Constructing Modern Woman and Female Space,” published online by Radford University, www.radford.edu
- KJ Zerbe, “Mother and Child. A psychobiographical portrait of Mary Cassatt,” The Psychoanalytic Review (74: Spring 1987), p. 45-61.
- Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art (Routledge, 2003), p. 115.
- Griselda Pollock, “Mary Cassatt: Painter of Women and Children,” Reading American Art , edited by Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (Yale University Press, 1998).
SHEILA HETI is the author of eight books, including the forthcoming Motherhood.