At the turn of the 20th Century, when a woman’s most acceptable occupation was motherhood, Bessie Potter Vonnoh succeeded professionally as a sculptor, flouting convention by focusing on a career instead of raising children. Rather than challenging traditional expectations of women, however, her sculptures idealized women as mothers.
Her success as an independent working artist rested on subject matter that supported traditional notions of women. This irony makes the Cincinnati Art Museum’s current exhibition Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women all the more fascinating.
Back then it was next to impossible for a woman to break into the realm of professional sculpture, which was dominated by men designing and erecting large public monuments. Vonnoh must have realized she could be accepted by creating sculptures that were domestic in both subject and scale. Her work not only reassured her clients of a woman’s proper place in the world, but also served as lovely decorations small enough to display in middle-class homes.
Further, Vonnoh depicted her subjects realistically but impressionistically — they're not smooth and flawless like classical sculpture but appear to be modeled on-the-spot, further suggesting the natural state of woman as mother.
The first sculpture in the exhibition, a 1904 table-top bust entitled “Modern Madonna,” not only realistically portrays a young mother holding her infant, but also elevates the subject to iconic status.
Another sculpture, “Enthroned,” evokes renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus and the toddler St. John the Baptist. Such sculptures suggested a woman should not only provide care for her children but should also serve as the moral compass of the home. She should be the “Angel in the House,” as the popular 19th-century phrase dictated.
The popularity of this subject matter becomes apparent in three versions of “A Young Mother,” a small sculpture depicting a mother holding her swaddled infant. The woman’s dress flows around her seated body, lending a pyramidal shape and monumental quality to the composition, and the weight of the child is emphasized in her arms. By 1930, nine museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had purchased versions of the sculpture from Vonnoh.
Vonnoh didn't just portray mothers. She made small figures of popular actresses such as Julia Marlowe, whose pose brings to mind those from full-length portraits of society women by Thomas Eakins or John Singer Sargent. Vonnoh also modeled portraits of children. The museum’s label text states that female artists, with their maternal instincts, were believed to be perfectly suited for depicting children. The joke was on the purveyors of that conviction, however, since Vonnoh never had children of her own.
Later in her career, Vonnoh also made larger pieces for display in gardens, a most appropriate setting for these Arcadian figural groups and youthful nude figures that, in their innocence, appear to belong in Eden.
One of the most touching pieces in the exhibition is a study small enough to hold in one hand. “Italian Mother” depicts a woman, her face wreathed in a peasant scarf, supporting the weight of an infant bundled on her back. The baby’s chubby arm drapes comfortably over the mother’s shoulder, and with the suggestion of wind blowing against the mother’s face and the heaviness of the child the work departs from the common theme of the exhibition. Rather than idealizing motherhood, this tiny study captures the realities of lower-class life and provides a counterpoint for the entire show, making it even more apparent that Vonnoh’s most popular work, and the traditional notions harbored in it, serve as artifacts of middle-class American cultural ideals.
Virgins to Vixens: Picturing American Women, 1880-1930, a small companion show outside the Vonnoh exhibition, provides further historical context for her sculpture. Prints and photographs by American masters depict a myriad of female imagery. For instance, John Sloan, at the same time Vonnoh was creating her idealized sculpture, depicted a working mother in a messy urban interior, her child running rampant as she reads the newspaper wearing only her undergarments. While Sloan’s print satirically illustrated the realities of working mothers, Vonnoh’s sculpture quite literally placed middle-class mothers on a pedestal.
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