Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas brought to you from the Enlightenment!

Ah, the Happy Mother!

Mia will be our guide on this reading about the Enlightenment (sic) and tale of the good mother embroidered in both art and literature of the period! Here are a few questions to ponder:

1. Before the Enlightenment, how was the family portrayed in art? Was this rendering faithful to the social reality of marriage?
2. Did the association of marriage with sexual satisfaction in 18th-century imagery seem surprising to you? How did the presence of children diminish the erotic nature of these representations?
3. Before the paradigm shift that Duncan charts, what were the roles assigned to husband and wife in marriage?
4. Discuss the representations of adultery and why that alternative was so widespread.
5. Before Rousseau, how were children perceived and how did Enlightenment thinkers change peoples’ views on parenting?
6. How did the paintings of Greuze and Aubrey reflect the ideas espoused in Rousseau’s Julie, Nouvelle Heloise, and Emile?
7. How did these new views of conjugal love affect portraiture? How did they affect contemporary families?
8. The very heart of the Enlightenment family was the wife-mother as eulogized by Diderot. In wanting to do what they were required to do, some women failed to measure up. What women did not match these criteria?
9. What were the origins of this cult of motherhood? What, if any, were the historical repercussions of the formula that “motherhood = happiness?”


4 responses

  1. The “Cult of Motherhood” arose from a combination of cultural sources–Diderot and Rousseau as well as Fragonard and Greuze. The happiness of the happy mother is contingent upon fulfillment of her natural “duties”–which includes making her husband and children happy. An emphasis on children as the source of women’s worth inevitably discouraged (or led men to discourage) the use of contraceptives which could yield a huge number of repercussions including a high rate of mortality during childbirth as well as, in the long term, overpopulation.

  2. Before the shift in marital attitudes mentioned in the article, conjugal love between a husband and a wife was something to be worked at and strictly a business arrangement. As we can see from paintings from that time period, women were seen as deceitful, seductresses who were not to be trusted. Children were treated like small adults, and there was almost not relationship between parent and child. The author states it wouldn’t be uncommon for a child of means to go from a wet nurse to and apprenticeship or convent with little contact with their parents. Children were a burden and childhood was not seen as a distinct or separate stage of life. The shift changed to make conjugal love more important, that a woman’s natural role was that of a wife and mother. Though this lifestyle was praised by Enlightenment philosophers like Diderot and Rousseau, and reflected in paintings by Grueze and Fragonard, it seems to have its origins in the middle classes, and later moved up to the aristocracy. Ususally social trends trickle down from the upper classes, and this was the other way around, and I’m curious as to why.

    • Morgan, I think that this trend traveled in the opposite direction from usual trends because of the popularity it gained within literary works. The middle class saw the value of this new idea of family and marriage and ran with it. Then, when the aristocracy read about the phenomenon (which was undoubtedly romanticized by authors) they jumped on the bandwagon. I am just speculating, but if anyone had time to lay around and read it was the aristocracy. So, it makes sense to me that other trends that began in the middle or lower classes never even reached the radar of the aristocracy, but because of the popularity in literature, and even in visual arts, the aristocracy had to take notice

  3. The discussion of adultry in this article is shocking to me, but it is also the logical conclusion of marriages at this time. I originally had difficulty separating my contemporary definition of marriage from the contractual, obligatory marriage of the 18th century. If two people are forced together against their will, it only makes sense that they would 1. seek pleasure elsewhere, and 2. be indifferent to the straying of their spouse, for whom they harbor no real feelings. More than anything, I am perplexed by the contradiction between the strict, religious rules that governed the time and the commonplace act of cheating. Also, in art and literature, why were women shown as the decitful, unfaithful spouses so much more frequently than men if both genders were participating in the same illicit activites?

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