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Mammalian Moms at the Museum

Mother’s Day may bring to mind a number of iconic works at the Art Institute: Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath, Pablo Picasso’s Mother and Child, or any number of Madonna and Child paintings. But despite the fact that some of my favorite mother/child combos may be less well-known, I think they still exude feelings of motherly love. They’re also decidedly less human—they both feature animals from the Alsdorf Galleries.

One of my favorites is the Indonesian Simian Mother and Child, a sculpture that packs a double punch of cuteness with a mother and baby monkey hugging each other tightly. And less than 50 feet away is a lovely pink sandstone, Cow Suckling a Calf. Created in the ninth century by an unknown sculptor, this naturalist relief panel depicts a mother and her young calf. Though she stands protectively over her baby, the mother cow’s quiet, steady gaze invites us to share in what would otherwise be a private and intimate moment.

Although we don’t know exactly where this tableau originated (most likely it came from a Hindu temple in central India), we know from her down-turned ears, curved horns, doe eyes, and hump back, that this cow probably belonged to a distinctive breed of Brahman cattle originally from India, where cows are sacred animals. Regarded as the “nourishing mother,” even the cow’s waste matter would have been used for fuel and during purification rituals.

I’m a big fan of cute animals (Ed. note: truer words have never been written), so this work in particular has always stood out to me. But beyond the adorable size of the baby cow, nestled so perfectly beneath her mother’s belly, I love the piece for its delicate and honest portrayal of the special bond between mother and child. So if you’re visiting this weekend with your mom, be sure to take a stroll through the Alsdorf galleries and pay a visit to a few unconventional representations of a mother and child.

India, Madhya or Uttar Pradesh. Cow Suckling a Calf, c. 9th century. James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection.

—Jocelin S., Social Media Coordinator

Tags: Asian Art