by Bailey Harberg, Collections Management Associate
Meet Mrs. Sarah Amelia Johnson Still (left), whose son, Clyfford, grew to become one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. We came across this small oil on canvas while trying to get a better grasp on some of the smaller oil paintings that have been grouped with Still’s works-on-paper.
Clyfford Still recalled his mother encouraging his visual appetite by bringing him various ladies’ magazines from which he could practice drawing figures. I find Still’s rare portraits to be unsettling, and this one is no exception. Her gaze jumps out of the canvas and seems to shake the viewer into submission. One can’t help but wonder if Clyfford grew up knowing this intense glare all too well, and if it had anything to do with his taking his profession so seriously as an adult.
Interestingly, this portrait was painted in the summer of 1946, after Still left New York City for a summer jaunt in Westlock, Alberta, Canada before moving down to San Francisco in the Fall. Still was right in the midst of his newfound Abstract Expressionist stardom at this point, and his figurative works had largely gone by the wayside. We also know that Still single-handedly built a house in Westlock during this summer. Could it be that through this nostalgic portrait and the construction of his little white house in Canada, Still was trying to tap into his childhood roots and rural upbringing as a way to forget the New York City, “big city” drama and refresh his individual spirit?
Other famed abstract artists also paid homage to their mothers in a traditional style. Pablo Picasso famously claimed that his mother said to him, “If you become a soldier you’ll be a general; if you become a monk you’ll end up as the Pope.” Picasso later stated in response, “Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.” Like Still’s portrait, Picasso’s portrait of his mother, Maria Ruiz Picasso, painted when Picasso was just fifteen years old, reveals a side of the artist different than that which we have become most familiar with.
Though Clyfford Still and Pablo Picasso both accomplished ground-breaking abstraction in each of their respective eras and countries, they both depicted their mothers in a sincere, conventional manner. These intimate images provide the means through which the viewer can form a human connection with these two often detached, inaccessible artists. Hopefully these images can similarly inspire you to creatively honor the profound influence your own mother has had on your life.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mother’s out there, for all in which you inspire.
Images: Clyfford Still, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (PH-420), 1946. Oil on Canvas. (Top)
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1896. (Bottom)