Looking back at ourselves: Illustrations of motherhood by Jessie Willcox Smith

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In her intimate and illuminating illustrations of mother and child, Jessie Willcox Smith captures some of my favourite parenting moments–namely reading and bedtime (both involve cuddles and of course, books).

Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) was a prolific American illustrator whose images of late-Victorian domesticity were published in numerous children’s books (The Water-Babies, 1916) and magazines (Good Housekeeping, Harper’s and Scribner’s).

As dictated by the time in which she lived, Smith had to choose between a career as an illustrator and a life as wife and mother. She chose a career. But through her work, children became the centre of her life:

“It has been one long joyous road along which troop delightful children, happy children, sad children, thoughtful children, and above all wondering, imaginative children, who give to their charmingly original thoughts a delicious quaintness of expression. I love to paint them all.” (source)

Some have criticized her for idealizing the lives of children and mothers. I do not. I am not an art critic, but I am a mother, and I see something very different when I look at her illustrations.

Smith’s work reflects the routine yet important things we do together every day–reading, dressing, eating, sleeping. As mothers, we are so busy doing these things that we barely notice them–and we rarely see them reflected back to us in such a beautiful and tender way. What I love seeing portrayed here is the sense of quiet purposefulness–these things need to get done, and so we do them.

These things we do to care for our children are not usually very exciting, and yet they are often wrought with emotion: fatigue and frustration, but also patience and love. I think she captures that reality here too.

Her illustrations, although created more than a century ago, let us see ourselves as mothers and hopefully recognize the beauty and the value in what we do.

I would love to know–what do you see when you look at Smith’s illustrations of motherhood?

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Happy mother’s day. May you read good books, eat good food, sleep as much as you like, and get lots of cuddles.

(All images are from 1890, published in Scribner’s Magazine. Source: New York Public Library digital gallery.)

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