Democracy Dies in Darkness

Museums

What can art teach us about breast-feeding?

August 22, 2018 at 1:52 PM

Left: “Black Mother” by Ernst Neuschul, 1931. Right: El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). “The Holy Family,” ca. 1585. (Ernst Neuschul Estate/Courtesy Leicester Arts & Museums and the Artist’s Estate/Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

BOSTON —When Lauren Hanley asked me to keep an eye out for images in museums of breast-feeding women, it didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Hanley is a general obstetrician and gynecologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She runs the breast-feeding clinic and is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Her husband, Jim, is, among other things, my daughter’s soccer coach.

On the sidelines one day, Hanley mentioned that she had seen some depictions of mothers I had posted on Instagram for Mother’s Day. She knew I was an art critic. “When I lecture,” she explained, “I like to keep my slides interesting and fun.”

“Of course,” I said. “They’re everywhere!”

Breast-feeding has been much in the news since the Trump administration stunned many by opposing a World Health Assembly resolution in support of breast-feeding. This year, remarkably, marks the first year that it has been legal to breast-feed in public in all 50 states.

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s “Nursing Mother in Front of Birch Forest,” 1905. (Private collection/American Federation of Arts)

The subject, especially when discussed in the media, is inevitably fraught, as the clear, medically established benefits of breast milk are set in tension with ongoing social stigmas, confused messaging about formula, and no end of moral pressure and practical impediments faced by working mothers.

Maybe talking about it in the context of art can help? “Bringing art into my lectures sheds light on the fact that nothing here is new or unique,” explained Hanley. After the soccer game, as the team waited in line at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, she revealed to me that, for her, there is a more personal connection between breast-feeding and art.

Breast-feeding did not get off to an easy start for Hanley. The first six months were an ordeal. “I had complications and had to supplement my daughter with formula until things improved for us,” she said.

When her first child was 6 months old, back in 2005, she went with Jim to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where they were members. Hanley was excited to be getting out of the house. In the exhibit — a display of Ralph Lauren’s collection of cars — her daughter was hungry. In the corner was a small leather stool. Hanley sat on it with her back to the room and very discreetly began feeding her.

Within minutes, she was tapped on the shoulder by a female security guard, who told her she wasn’t allowed to feed her baby inside the exhibition. “When I asked her where I should go,” remembers Hanley, “she led me into the ground floor of a very hot stairwell which had a changing table at the bottom. There were no chairs. I sat on the stairs, alone in a hot stairwell, and finished feeding my baby.”

The episode left Hanley upset and confused. It had taken her months to straighten out her breast-feeding difficulties. She finally had an opportunity to go out with friends and family and enjoy the day, and was made to feel ashamed by a security guard for feeding her child.

The irony, of course, is that this happened in an art museum strewn with paintings of naked bodies, cavorting infants and, yes, breast-feeding women.

Hanley recalls her experience at the MFA every day when she tries to help women achieve their goals. It made her realize that “we can and must do better.” Even outside her job, she has followed through personally: A letter she wrote to the MFA the day after her experience effected a change in the museum’s policy. The museum created a lounge for child feeding with couches and climate control. Hanley’s testimony then helped a bill supporting breast-feeding in public in Massachusetts in 2009.

“ ‘It takes a village’ is so true when it comes to breast-feeding,” she said. “Even if I can help a woman and baby breast-feed, what barriers is she going to face when she walks out my door? Can she breast-feed on the train or in the park without ridicule? Will she have space and time to express milk when she returns to work? ”

People often assume these are all contemporary issues. But they’re not — as Hanley’s comments about the images I sent her attest.

Edgar Degas’s “At the Races in the Countryside,” 1869, oil on canvas. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/)

Edgar Degas, "At the Races in the Countryside," 1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of Degas’ most famous works, this small painting shows an upper-class family — close friends of the artist — in a carriage at the races. A wet nurse is feeding the baby, Henri Valpincon, alongside the mother, while the family dog looks on. The painting reminds us, says Hanley, “of the prevalence of wet nurses during this period. The ‘modern’ infant feeding bottle was glass and invented in France in the 1850s. But previous iterations were challenging to clean, leading to infant death. So, clearly, a wealthy family would use a wet nurse if they could.”

El Greco, "The Holy Family," ca. 1585, Hispanic Society of America, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This great El Greco shows Mary feeding Jesus with Joseph looking tenderly on. It reminds Hanley, she says, “of the importance of familial and, especially, partner support. We know that partners’ attitudes can have a great impact on breast-feeding success or lack thereof. If partners and other family members understand the benefits of breast-feeding for women, children and whole populations, they are much more likely to be supportive.”

Guido Reni’s “Charity.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/)

Guido Reni, "Charity," ca. 1630, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Reni, a deeply religious man who painted to keep up with his gambling debts, was as famous as Rubens until the 19th century, when his reputation was shredded by the critic John Ruskin. To Hanley, this painting, an allegorical representation of charity, evokes “the multitasking supermom archetype, who can and does juggle it all. She is feeding one child, letting one rest on her and making eye contact with the third.”

“This reflects the modern-day working mom, who may be pumping while on the computer and on the phone and planning three other things, all at the same time. For better or for worse, this is what modern parenting is like. But this image reminds us that modern is not always modern: Women have been doing this forever. Some facets are slightly changed, but the theme remains the same: Women can and do handle it all.”

Ernst Neuschul, "The Black Mother," 1931, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, United Kingdom

Neuschul was a Jewish painter, born in Prague. A radical socialist, he worked in Berlin until he was hounded out by Nazis. In 1937, accompanied by his wife and child, he fled Czechoslovakia after his paintings were daubed with swastikas. The subjects of this painting are unknown, but it was painted in Berlin at a time when black people, who made up a small but significant part of Germany’s population, were routinely vilified.

Although both mother and baby are well-dressed, says Hanley, “their gazes both appear worried, almost like what they are doing is wrong and they might get caught. Like if she sits there quietly and covertly, maybe no one will notice them.”

“So many women live in fear when they breast-feed. This is how mothers in America look when feeding their babies. Even women using bottles. There might be breast milk or formula in that bottle, but they are still being judged. For just using the bottle, for just using the breast. Constantly being judged. If we could turn all the judgment into support, then we would be doing something positive.”

Paula Modersohn-Becker, "Nursing Mother in Front of Birch Forest," 1905. Private collection, Bedford, N.Y. (displayed in "Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900," at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 3.)

Although she sold only two works during her lifetime, Modersohn-Becker painted as if in a kind of delirium, even as she tried to reconcile family life with her fierce inner creative drive. After marrying the painter Otto Modersohn, she looked after his child from a previous marriage, then left him to go out on her own before returning to Modersohn and conceiving a child with him. By then, maternity was already a powerful theme in her work. Her daughter, Mathilde, was born in 1907, when her mother was 31. Eighteen days later, Modersohn-Becker died of a postpartum embolism.

This work was made two years earlier. “To me,” says Hanley, it “is the epitome of the breast-feeding relationship. It is mother and child in complete solitude and peace. They are alone in the forest with no one there to judge or harass them. This is where we all wish we can be when breast-feeding. Alone, with total serenity. In a dream state. ”


Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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