A motherly portrait of fatherhood

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English artist Winifred Nicholson several times depicts a subject that's unusual in the history of art: a father and son. Here is her husband, artist Ben Nicholson, with their first child, Jake.

Images of mothers and sons abound in art. They may be found in the fond or efficient domestic scenes of Dutch 17th-century art, seen recurrently in the theme of "virgin and child" (a significant preoccupation of Christian art), or observed in the family portraits of the 18th century.

Photography eventually led to endless family snapshots in which the natural closeness of the father-child relationship makes its relaxed presence felt. But such images are usually seen as private, or documentary, and not as "art." Art has been more conventionally concerned with traditional universals, with a world in which babies are almost entirely the province of women.

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Winifred Nicholson always suggested that it was her husband who made "masterpieces," not she. She accepted that a woman artist painted differently than a man did. But she found a way of painting - very quickly, after deep thought - that made it possible to attend to her three children without compromising her art. Her children, as they grew up, continued to appear in her paintings.

Her husband left home when Jake was 5. So in hindsight it's idealistic to see these early paintings of undoubted fatherly tenderness as indicators of a stable family. Still, in their spontaneous (almost snapshotlike) perception of a domestic reality, Nicholson's motherly paintings of fatherhood are decidedly original.

One can recall many examples of great male artists producing loving portraits of their sons and daughters - with mother, or without. One feels the relationship of child to father in such cases without actually seeing the father. In this painting, it is the mother who is unseen - but, instead, affectionately sees.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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