Mother's Picture

Rachel McBride Lindsey

Over the weekend my Facebook and Twitter feeds became galleries of motherhood. From tweets memorializing motherly wisdom (#momquotes) to snapshots of women in every stage of motherhood, social media transformed the act of recognition into a pageantry of photographic representation. Of course, social media often do this. What we may miss scrolling through all of those snapshots, though, is a history of mom pictures that tells us something about habits of familial curation (how we choose what stories to tell about our family and through what media we tell them) and the role of portraiture conventions in American cultural identities. In all of those pictures, in other words, we can discern broader claims and anxieties of inclusion and absence. Many of the images that I scrolled through—lingering longer on some, skimming many—evoked a kind of nostalgia, some were mournful, and many were celebratory. We post—the verb I want to use here is curate—pictures of our mothers out of love and admiration and awe (and perhaps less laudable motives as well). But these pictures also have a life of their own as fields of representation, both individually and, most especially, as so many portraits in a collective cultural gallery. I’ve written on this blog before about hidden mother portraits, and I’m going to do it again. But this time I want to juxtapose these curious portraits of failed concealment with another popular portraiture convention of the nineteenth century, the infant pieta. Whereas the compositional goal in hidden mothers was, we can only assume, to negate mother’s presence, in postmortem portraits of young children the mourning mother is purposeful, prominent, and present. Considering these nineteenth-century conventions alongside one another, and with our own modern-day photographic archives in mind, helps clarify just what those endless pictures of mothers are doing and how we continue to seek presence in the pictures we encounter.

"Hidden Mother" cabinet card, Schaller, IA, ca. 1880.
  “Hidden mother” refers to a genre of studio portraiture in which a child is accompanied by an adult figure (usually presumed to be the child’s mother) who is concealed through either theatrical or chemical tactics. The most common method of obfuscation is by covering with a blanket, although there are many other examples such as the reaching arm, well- or poorly positioned furniture, an extended curtain, the third arm, strategic matting or framing, developing techniques that reduce the frame of the negative, and, in some cases, vandalizing the surface of the image itself. This curious convention raises a number of questions, perhaps foremost among them is how could nineteenth century folks have been so bad at hiding? Indeed, the classification of “hidden mother” is a recognition of failure—the figures are still visible, even if their absence is conspicuously staged. Art historian Geoffrey Batchen reminds us of often significant differences between nineteenth-century habits of beholding and our own. There is much in 19th century studio portraiture (painted backdrops and unlikely props, for instance) that we are asked not to see—or at least to see differently. And Linda Fregni Nagler, who curated the most extensive collection of hidden mother photographs to date, explains that “excluding the mother from sight meant adhering to a precise convention according to which her concealment corresponded to her total cancellation.” For these historians, hidden mother portraits invite us to see differently, and to adjust our definitions of photographic presence accordingly.  

The convention of “hidden mother” portraiture began in the daguerreian period of the 1840s and 1850s, but the term itself is an invention of later collectors and historians. Notably, references to a “hidden mother” in the 19th-c. were almost always to images of the Virgin Mary, as in the English poet Emily Bowles’s verse, “On a Hidden Shrine.” Bowles converted to Catholicism at the age of 11 and later adopted a lay religious vocation. “On a Hidden Shrine” was first published in an 1874 collection, where she notes that she wrote the lines while meditating on an “image of the Blessed Virgin.” Her description of “Mother, deep in shadow hidden / Thou standest with they Child in arms / Meek handmaid of the Lord, still bidden / To taste thy joy mid earth’s alarms” suggests an iconographic tradition (the Virgin Mary) that was incorporated into photographic convention (veiled mothers). Surely there were far more prosaic designs behind the obfuscation of maternal presence. Francesco Zanot suggests the economic premium of a single likeness, for instance, and let’s not dismiss the deliberate intentions of the mothers themselves. And yet there seems to be something more at play in these orchestrated absences. This hunch is heightened when we see when and how studio portraiture emphasized maternal presence.

But we aren’t there just yet.

Shrine of the Virgin, ca. 1300.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Drawing again on religious iconography, Nagler defines hidden mother portraits as examples of apocalypsis, as artifacts that “express the ‘unveiling of the concealed’” and interprets them as tokens of “The final revelation.” Making implicit associations between Christian iconographies and the cultural operations of hidden mother portraiture, Nagler further interprets the convention as a kind of absconditum, as an “object of hiding,” and her point of reference is a 14th-century Shrine of the Virgin. In this view, the statue is a vision of maternal nurture, wherein the infant Christ suckles at his mother’s breast. But opened, it reveals the resurrected Christ, surrounded by vignettes from Christian tradition. Playing with concealment and revelation, life and death and resurrection, the statue is an illuminating conceptual antecedent to conventions of photographic portraiture.

Shrine of the Virgin, ca. 1300.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Certainly few, if any, Americans in the 1840s through 1860s were familiar with this particular artifact, and yet it is remarkable that these iconographic conventions were incorporated into early studio photography. Even if there were extant claims to high art mimicry among a handful of studio proprietors—such as the Boston firm of Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes—what is
remarkable in these early conventions is the extent to which a predominantly Protestant population embraced conventions of self-representation drawn from Catholic iconographic traditions. It may be tempting to interpret this convention in the vein of therapeutic retrieval of “premodern” aesthetics as a salve for the uncertainties and excesses of modernity. And yet American Protestantism had always been defined, in part, by material and visual artifacts that were products of—rather than reactions to—modernity. American Protestantism, in other words, had always carried its own iconographic traditions, and the familiar interpretive compartments of Protestant and Catholic, modern and premodern, are not particularly useful here.

If the portraiture convention of the hidden mother invites us to consider the conceit of the secular—namely, absence—at least tangentially, in 19th century studio photography, let’s look briefly at two other conventions that evoke Christian, and specifically Marian, iconography more explicitly.

Images of Mary nursing the infant Jesus date well before the early modern period, and it may not be surprising that some women chose to mimic this tradition in their own studio likenesses. Still, without biographical clues about these particular women, such images invite us, again, to consider what this mode of self-representation says about the incorporation of religious iconographies into seemingly prosaic studio portraiture. What claims are being made in this composition? How is the photograph itself, aside from its visual composition, being staged? How was it beheld by contemporaries?

A seemingly deliberate counterpoint to the nursing Madonna was the infant pieta. As with the Virgin in Emily Bowles’s poem “The Hidden Shrine,” in studio portraiture the maternal figure was unveiled—rendered accessible, vulnerable, identifiable—in her moment of insufferable grief: “Standing all tearless by the Cross—No hidden Mother then—Thy boundless right to pain and loss Made known to angels and to men.” As with hidden mothers, there is scarce evidence that infant pieta was a designation recognized in the mid-19th century, but there is little doubt that this was a deliberately staged convention. Although there are instances of families and fathers cradling the dead child, it was far more common to display mothers in seemingly solitary mourning. But this is a deliberate staging of maternal grief. As with Mary’s in the Christian tradition, through this iconographic convention, the mother’s grief is not her own; it becomes emblematic, in the language of the period, of the suffering “race.” Much as studio portraits of widows in full mourning garb would become tokens of national penance during the American Civil War a decade later, these portraits of loss intersect with an iconographic tradition that places them within a narrative of corporate grief. And promise.

Nineteenth century postmortem and memorial photographs asked beholders to perceive in death the promise of resurrected life. Indeed, as any portrait from life could be repurposed as memento mori upon death, photographic likenesses came quickly to be understood as material proxies of corruptible flesh. Photographs, in short, were relics as well as icons. In the same volume that she reflected on the Hidden Shrine, Emily Bowles meditated on “A Photograph After Death”: “Tread softly, though you will not wake him now; He looks asleep, but sleep till doom will last; Come near and read this angel-vision pale . . . Ye will not wake him, his ten years are sped …/ In sleep till Judgment-day. While I without him pine and watch till empty life grows old. / I turn from thy dear image, flower wreathed, / To walk through life’s dull round and weary task . . . / And now I only ask / To know thee happy, watching o’er thy mother, safe with God.” The metaphorical association of death with sleep in these lines is reinforced by the aesthetic conventions of photography, both of which work to unsettle the  finality of corporeal absence.

The snapshots that populate 21st-century virtual galleries are very different in many ways than 19th-c. portraits. Not only that, and perhaps more importantly, Americans today perceive photographs (among other things) very differently than our forebears did. And yet certain legacies remain. Photographs, particularly those that are most familiar to us, continue to claim belonging and presence, and they still show the bright seams of religion in American culture.