Chantal Joffe, My Mother in a Blue Shawl in her Doorway, 2020, oil on board, 72 × 47 1⁄4".

Chantal Joffe, My Mother in a Blue Shawl in her Doorway, 2020, oil on board, 72 × 47 1⁄4".

Chantal Joffe

Yes, it’s true, mothers are people too. “Most of the literature of infant care and psychology has assumed that the process toward individuation is essentially the child’s drama, played out against and with a parent or parents who are, for better or worse, givens,” writes Adrienne Rich in the 1976 study Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. “Nothing could have prepared me for the realization that I was a mother, one of those givens, when I knew I was still in a state of uncreation myself.” Almost half a century later, in writing, art, and film about motherhood, the experience of effacement prevails, with Rich often invoked as the harbinger of a change that we have yet to see fully realized and accepted: the recognition of the mother as complex, independent, autonomous, ambivalent, yet intractably intensely bound. How to recuperate or depict this woman, who is so many women, all around us, every day?

“I thought, I’ll try and paint her throughout her life and somehow try and see her through a different lens. Or just try and see her at all, which is almost impossible at the best of times,” Chantal Joffe says of “Story,” an exhibition of twenty-three renderings of the artist’s mother and siblings, painted from family photographs and from life. Joffe began this group more than thirty years ago; several of the works on view here were created during the recent pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, during which the artist’s mother, Daryll, was living alone. We see Daryll framed in her doorway, standing tentatively at its threshold, where Joffe spent short visits with her in recent months; Daryll resting on a floral-print couch, eyes closed and one bandaged, following a cataract operation; a younger Daryll at the beach with a child in a striped shirt; an even younger Daryll smoking glamorously on a train with a different child at her knee; and the perhaps youngest Daryll, holding her first child as an infant, looking down at it lovingly, her flame-orange hair swept back from her face in profile.

These images are fluidly painted in casual brushstrokes, confident lines full of movement, and bright swaths of color, so that they appear as fleeting, sometimes blurred, or near-dissolved vignettes: painted impressions that don’t wish to settle—feelings, auras, memories—rather than direct representations. Source images are distorted and brought to vivid painterly life: Children’s legs dangle impossibly long. Forms are flattened, limbs are angular, facial features are simplified, backgrounds are abstracted into patterns and shapes. Even the works painted directly from observation resist verisimilitude, striving instead for a kind of directness or honesty about presence rather than appearance. In the large and striking My Mother in a Blue Shawl in her Doorway (all works cited, 2020), Daryll stands solid and monumental, her shawl a vibrant wash of blues, her face painted in many subtle shades of ivory, porcelain, peach, pink, mauve, pale yellow, sage green.

Story shows three children gathered on the couch with their mother, her long red ponytail dangling over her shoulder. They are tightly clustered around her, all jammed into one corner, trying to get as close as possible. Joffe often primes her canvases with green (as did Degas) or pink, and in this work a fern-green color recedes beneath the bodies of the figures, providing a beguiling negative space that undergirds the image like a ghostly emulsion. “We’re a story the mother is telling to herself, and they are a story of our life we are telling ourself,” says Joffe. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” I imagine that most people looking at Joffe’s paintings will think of their own mothers, though all will think different thoughts: Motherhood and childhood are both deeply universal and not, both innate and entirely constructed in their rituals, traditions, assumptions, associations. The stories we tell, the images we make of them, matter.