When it comes to Impressionism and motherhood there’s probably no one more famous than American artist Mary Cassatt, whose touching vignettes of the mother-child relationship blossom in unassuming poses under the guide of cool, calculated brushstrokes.
Berthe Morisot too, another Impressionist, tackled motherhood with tenderness and candor, returning to the subject of her daughter, Julie, with persistence over the years. Morisot did it with the same commitment and pragmatic abnegation that a parent today would deal with the minutiae of child-rearing, her timelapse of portraits being a more intimate version of the height marks that parents traditionally trace on a wall for their children.
And then there’s Canadian artist Helen McNicoll, who didn’t zero in on motherhood, yet whose painting The Mother (1912) is sure to move you just as much as Cassatt and Morisot’s works. Since she didn’t have the advantage of being in with the it Parisian crowd during the first wave of Impressionism — nor was she French — McNicoll is all but forgotten today.
I suppose some might call The Mother cheesy or overdone, like a Hallmark card, but I find it intoxicating. In truth, it’s not the mother who gets my attention, but the warmth of the yellows, browns and greens incensing the wheat field like tongues of flame in the scorching summer heat.
They’re not even that menacing, these plant-flames — they undulate like a caress, they’re broad and soft like satin ribbons, they tickle the eyes with pointy ends — yet rise and rise they do, unbridled. There’s the inherent danger of wind and heat, but McNicoll also offers us an answer to this natural menace.
So then, yes, we can finally take a longer look at the mother with her protective parasol, as the sorceress who somehow achieves a standstill, a haven for her baby to sleep peacefully amidst the elements. Any parent who has spent midnight hours driving on empty streets with nothing on but the hum of the engine just to get their child to fall asleep, will be sure to empathize with this mother.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by her self-composure and the cool blue-grey hues of her dress, for her cheeks are burning alight with summer heat. I bet she’d rather stay indoors or have a swim in a nearby lake. But when a fluffy ball of cuteness demands sleep, then personal comfort be damned.
If you’ve spent enough time on the mother and child, then maybe it’s time to look in the distance. There, once again, McNicoll achieves some effects close to magic with her paintbrush-wand. You can almost feel the heat rising from the ground when you see those loose, disparate brushstrokes in the background — the distorted impression of trees as seen through the glass-like surface of a mass of hot air. And the sky… What an atmospheric effect comes through when the pale blue ether is slanted by white diagonals of diffuse sunlight.
When McNicoll revisited this subject two years later in the 1914 painting In the Shadow of the Tree, a young woman with a parasol seats beside a stroller with a baby sleeping in it. There the caretaker is more detached, lending weight to the hypothesis that she’s a nanny or an elder sister. The detachment doesn’t come solely from the woman’s immersion in her reading while barely touching the infant’s stroller. No, it’s a much more permeating state, encompassing everything and reflected in the more subdued color palette used. Long gone are the incandescent hues from The Mother.
What I find interesting is that even though in In the Shadow of the Tree the baby and the stroller take up a lot of space, it is the woman’s face expression that draws you in. The stroller feels almost like a prop, something for the woman to rest her hand on. Far from being as intimate as The Mother, if anything, this scene urges you to grab a book and lose yourself in its pages.
Helen McNicoll never specialized herself in motherhood paintings, yet from these few glimpses we can see her range, how she could probe both the individual and the mother as an extension of the self. Perhaps she could have investigated these psychological complexities further, but in the sunlight dappling across her paintings life unfolds with bliss. There is a time for everything.