Milton Avery’s Mother and Child is a modern reinterpretation of a centuries-old subject in the tradition of figurative painting. Initial compositions of the Madonna and Child, by the likes of Giotto and Cimabue in the thirteenth century, later by Titian, were carried on by Rapheal and others during the Renaissance, and further still into the Baroque. The subject transitioned from the religious context into the secular realm and was carried into portraits of English aristocracy, such as those by Joshua Reynolds during the eighteenth century, and the romantic realism of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, before being embraced by Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps the most notable of the Impressionist practitioners of the subject was Mary Cassatt, whose The Child’s Bath (1893, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois) relies on a comparable design and use of color to Avery’s Mother and Child in its conveyance of an intimate moment. However, unlike those who came before him, Avery set out to render such seemingly mundane yet contemplative subjects in a modern lexicon of forms that fit together into an equally poetic arrangement. Hilton Kramer wrote, “His wit preserves their freshness, while his elegance confers on them a kind of lyric beauty one normally expects to find in a subject encountered for the first time.” (as quoted in B.L. Grad, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1981, p. 1)
Many scholars attribute the important characteristics of Avery's mature style to his professional affiliation with gallerist Paul Rosenberg, who exposed him to modern European artists and their abstract ideals. When Rosenberg arrived in America in 1940, he brought a cache of great works by important European artists, including Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, many of whom provided Avery with a new understanding on abstract representation. Picasso himself was no stranger to modernizing the age old subject of mother and child, addressing it on a number of occasions, including in Mother and Child (1921, Art Institute of Chicago). Mother and Child, Avery’s distinctly American version of Picasso’s, was represented by Rosenberg, before ending up in the collection of Keith Warner, whose New York collection also included examples by Piet Mondrian, Braque, Picasso, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, John Marin and Alexander Calder.
Barbara Haskell discusses the influences of Rosenberg’s artists on Avery at this time, noting that "Rosenberg's proclivity for taut structure and architectonic solidity encouraged Avery to emphasize these aspects of his work. He replaced the brushy paint application and graphic detailing that had informed his previous efforts with denser more evenly modulated areas of flattened color contained with crisply delineated forms. The result was a more abstract interlocking of shapes and a shallower pictorial space than he had previously employed. Avery retained color as the primary vehicle of feeling and expression, but achieved a greater degree of abstraction by increasing the parity between recognizable forms and abstract shapes." ("Milton Avery: The Metaphysics of Color," Milton Avery: Paintings from Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, 1994, p. 8-9)
In Mother and Child, the pictorial space has been condensed into the flattened two-dimensional picture plane and broad passages of color delineate the figures and surrounding background. Avery has reduced the composition to a myriad of cutouts that fashion a cohesive puzzle of abstract forms. The painter creates tension and balance through his selection of complementary and contrasting colors and shapes. While he simplifies the scene to the broadest possible elements, he invigorates these shapes through his sophisticated use of variegated hues. Avery constructs a simplified background with two distinct horizontal bands of contrasting color, while setting the brighter colors of the mother’s blouse and skirt against the muted tones of the chair and floor in a more vertical format. The result is an emphasis on the central figure, pushing our focus forward to the mother figure and her intimate relationship with her child. As Avery noted, "I work on two levels. I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colors form a set of unique relationships independent of any subject matter. At the same time I try to capture and translate the excitement and emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea." (as quoted in B.L. Grad, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1981, p. 8)
Indeed, it was Avery’s works from the mid-1940s, such as Mother and Child that attracted popular appeal and exerted a highly important influence on an entire generation of Post-War American artists, including soon-to-be members of the Abstract Expressionist movement Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottleib and Barnett Newman. According to Avery’s wife Sally Michel, these three artists often spent summers with the Averys on Cape Anne in Massachusetts. "Milton never formally taught anybody in his life...But Rothko and Gottlieb would come around and study his paintings and just absorb them by osmosis. One summer in Gloucester, Milton refused to show them what he was doing, because he felt they were becoming too dependent upon him." (K.E. Willers, Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, Roslyn Harbor, New York, 2011, p. 32) The members of this emerging group of abstract painters seized upon Avery’s large-scale canvases that emphasized color and form, reducing their own arrangements to simplified zones of color. Author Andrew Hudson writes, “...it was from Avery that Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, two members of the postwar New York School whose large, flat paintings anticipated and were a strong influence behind the emergence of "Color [Field] Painting," got the idea of muffling, staining and washing thin paint onto the canvas in large areas of a single color. Avery, a representational painter, influenced the future development of abstract art.” (Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, p. 32)
Although Avery may have been tending towards abstraction in his broad geometric masses of color, he never fully abandoned representational painting. Robert Hobbs notes, “Avery recognized that his art could never lose its human quotient if it were to be successful.” (Milton Avery, New York, 1990, p. 166) In part it was Avery’s commitment to his subject that restrained his abstract tendencies. Avery wrote, "I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea--expressed in its simplest form." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, New York, 2001) Perhaps the greatest recognition of this commitment came from Rothko himself who remarked, “Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. Thanks to him this kind of poetry has been able to survive in our time. This-alone-took great courage in a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor, force and a show of power. But Avery had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant. (Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, p. 34) It is perhaps Avery’s success as a representational artist that has paved the way for many of the great post-War American figure painters, including Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Eric Fischl, John Currin, and George Condo.
In Mother and Child, with its subject matter steeped in tradition but reinterpreted by Avery’s distinct hybrid of figuration and abstraction, Avery achieves a masterful reinterpretation of an archetypal theme. It is this reinterpretation that cemented his legacy and proved invaluable to the development of post-War abstraction, while never fully abandoning representational painting. Upon the painter’s death in 1965, hundreds of artists attended his memorial service in New York City. Mark Rothko eulogized, “I would like to say a few words about the greatness of Milton Avery. This conviction of greatness, the feeling that one was in the presence of great events, was immediate on encountering his work. It was true for many of us who were younger, questioning, and looking for an anchor. This conviction has never faltered. It has persisted, and has been reinforced through the passing decades and the passing fashions.” (Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, p. 34)