Bessie Potter Vonnoh was one of the most prolific and popular sculptors of genre in the first decades of the 20th Century in America. Her popularity and fame were based on her choice of subject matter---primarily mothers and children at play and in intimate little groupings---rendered in a tender, intimate, engaging, and somewhat nostalgic fashion which made them extremely appealing to the public which loved her wholesome and easily recognizable style. In contrast to the pretentious memorials and elaborate architectural creations of her peers and fellow sculptors working during the same period, Vonnoh like Mary Cassatt was able to sculpt works which exuded a sense of delicate domesticity balanced with the simple joys of motherhood.
Bessie Potter Vonnoh was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1872. About 1890 she traveled to Chicago and apprenticed with Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago. She later became his assistant and helped him with sculptures that he submitted at the Columbia Exposition of 1893 where she also exhibited some of her own works. At the fair Vonnoh was fascinated with the small figures by the Russian sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy which more than likely inspired her own later varied iterations of mothers and children. In 1894 Potter rented her first studio and said "I left behind me forever the swaddling clothes of art student life and became a professional." And "I invited my girl friends to pose, making little statuettes of them just as they dropped in, dressed in all the incongruities of the day." Her approach was a radical rejection of the classical Greek ideals and instead she sought to capture the everyday beauty of her modern world in modest sizes that she called statuettes. In 1896 she modeled A Young Mother, thought to be one of her first along the mother and children themes. These works won recognition as her Young Mother received a bronze medal at the Paris Exposition of 1895 and again along with Midsummer won honorable mentions at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1898. In 1899 Bessie Potter married the painter Robert Vonnoh. Their time together was marked by one of mutual respect and promotion of one another’s works.
Bessie Potter Vonnoh was inspired like many of her contemporaries with the Impressionist practice of taking modern life as subject matter for their work. Maternal scenes such as Motherhood are quintessential examples of Vonnoh’s loving representations of women and children enjoying intimate, fleeting moments of tenderness. In this sculpture Vonnoh has given her figures a strength through their grace and beauty, a spirituality not seen before in the art of her predecessors. Her art is an expression of modern life. The models for Motherhood were Helena Franz Walter and her children Helen, Josephine and Charles. Vonnoh was taken by Helena's beauty on a street in Rockland Lake, New York, asked the family to pose for her, and Motherhood and Enthroned were the results. It was not a formal portrait but an impressionistic modeling of the sitters. The piece won the Shaw Memorial prize at the Society of American Artists in New York and subsequently at numerous other venues.
Collection of Mrs. H.C. Wortman, Portland, Oregon (label underneath)