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Images of Victorian Motherhood, Effaced and Exposed

2013 July 12

Recently I’ve been contemplating motherhood as it is represented in Victorian hidden mother portraits and Victorian breastfeeding portraits, two fascinating photographic trends.

Woman, under floral cloth, with children

Woman, under floral cloth, with children

A little over a year ago, I stumbled upon Chelsea Nichols’ post about hidden mothers in Victorian photographs on her blog, The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things. These images typically depict a shrouded woman holding or standing behind a baby or child, ostensibly to keep the child still for the camera while remaining out of the image.  The images are fascinating—they draw attention to the shrouded figure they are attempting to obscure, and beg the question of why this figure is shrouded to begin with.  Is this actually a member of the family (the mother of the children), or an employee (a nanny or an assistant at the photographic studio) whose job it is to essentially become a piece of movement-restricting furniture?

These images sparked two debates on Nichols’ page (and prompted this follow-up post).  First, was the shrouded woman actually a mother?  Second, what was the purpose of the shrouded figure in the image—was the figure there to hold restless children still for a long image exposure, or was it to prop up deceased children and make them seem more lifelike—were these, in other words, memento mori images?  Interestingly, the memento mori debate hijacked the discussion of the shrouded women, thus effectively shrouding them all over again.  I wrote my own pair of musings about the significance of the obscured mother figure and memento mori images, but these images continue to haunt me.

Probably a Memento Mori

Probably a Memento Mori

Probably Not a Memento Mori (?)

Probably Not a Memento Mori (?)

I do not wish to rehash these debates, which are fascinating not only for what they might illuminate about Victorian photography, but for what they reveal about our present-day desire to establish photographic “Truth” —to know definitively who the shrouded figures were and whether the children were dead when they were photographed.  I wish instead to put this photographic trend in conversation with another: photographs of Victorian women breastfeeding their children.

Breastfeeding Mother

Breastfeeding Mother

A colleague recently sent me this link to Gwen Sharp’s article about “The Victorian Breastfeeding Photo Fad,” a fascinating fad to consider in its own right.  Citing Jill Lepore, Sharp writes that the fad was a distinctly American phenomenon—the product of a culture that relied less on wet nurses than Europe.  The fad began in the early days of daguerreotype portraiture and continued until late century, when cultural perceptions of maternity and breastfeeding changed.

Unlike the breastfeeding images, the hidden mother images seem to have been a fad on both sides of the Atlantic.  The two trends seem to have another major difference as well: one effaces the person in the image, while the other exposes her.  In the hidden mother images, it is unclear whether the shrouded figure is the mother of the child in the portrait.  In at least one instance, the shrouded figure wears pants and appears to be a man.  Yet let us assume that at least some of the shrouded women were the mothers of the (living or dead) children they held.  A mother would likely have more luck stilling a squirming child than a stranger would, and would be a more appropriate choice for the task of propping up a dead child.  Despite the shrouds, the figures and the children they accompany create intimate tableaux.  Conversely, the breastfeeding images overtly and insistently suggest a familial relationship between the child and the person holding the child.  They also expose the gendered body of the person holding the child.  If the figures in both types of photographs are mothers, a seemingly contradictory image of motherhood begins to emerge, one understood as effacement and exposure.

A recent George Eastman House Exhibit titled “The Gender Show” focuses on gender performances in photography from the nineteenth century to the present.  As curator Alison Nordstrom says of the collection’s nineteenth-century images, “it seems to be that all of these kinds of photographs are somewhat more performative than contemporary work, partly because they took a little bit longer to make.”

Victorian breastfeeding images perform gender, and do so through a maternal act.  Yet arguably the hidden mothers also perform gender as maternity.  In both sets of images, femininity is performed as maternity, itself represented as a self-effacing support role.  The focus on the mother in both types of images is not the mother, but what the mother is doing for her child: feeding her child or teaching it to be still (or holding its body upright) for the camera.

What fascinates me about these two sets of images is not their dissimilarity, but their unexpected connection: effacement and exposure seem to operate as parallel logics, abstracting the individual into a role.  Whether their bodies are revealed or obscured, the women in these images all represent support.  In this way, both sets of images are about the effacement of the individual, just as they are also about the exposure of gender norms.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.  When she is not collecting Victorian photography, she is writing about Victorian literature and visual culture.  Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

Related JVC Articles:

Caroline Arscott’s “Childhood in Victorian Art.” JVC 9.1 (2004)

Simon Morgan’s “Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England.” JVC 17.2 (2012)

John Plunkett’s “Celebrity and Community: the Poetics of the Carte-de-visite.” JVC 8.1 (2003)

3 Responses leave one →
  1. David Harley permalink
    August 1, 2013

    I have been struck by the absence from 17th-century Dutch paintings of mothers nursing or of wet nurses.

    Calvinists valued maternal nursing very highly, as a duty prescribed by both the Bible and God’s second book of Nature. Among surviving works of art, there are large numbers of famous paintings depicting mothers with young children and also children not yet been breeched. Calvinists were never the religious majority, but they were politically and economically dominant. They were prominent patrons and customers for domestic paintings, presumably intended for the rooms mainly used by women.

    So, were there more paintings of mothers nursing, which later taste swept into oblivion, along with vast numbers of other works? Or was there a moral barrier to the depiction of this intimate domestic act?

  2. Susan Cook permalink
    August 7, 2013

    What an interesting observation! I’m not sure I can answer your questions, but I wonder whether eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture conventions might shed some light here. I wonder if the nursing phenomenon is wholly tied to photographic technologies as the article I cite suggests, or whether it was borrowing from a broader art movement. If it is borrowing from a broader movement, it would be interesting to figure out where and when this originates–and see whether there is any sort of connection to the 17th-century Dutch tradition.

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