Liberating motherhood through naturalistic paintings

Motherhood saved me from quarantine, but my portraits saved me from motherhood

Life in quarantine was different for everyone though, one thing we experienced collectively was complete isolation. This meant a whole 360 adjustment no matter who you are and what part of the globe you were in. For first time mother and photographer Cait Breault, this meant exploring motherhood with what she knows best, and provides a sense of false control: her camera. After a single visit to her regular check ups just months before giving birth to her first born, the idea to re-imagine impressionist portraits came to mind when discovering a gorgeous print by Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (1897) hung in her midwife's office. Moved by the painting itself, and the tenderness expressed through the female gaze, Cait felt compelled to make her own and came about her 'Maternity in Quarantine' series.

Experiencing motherhood is one thing but embracing it through a lockdown is another which for Cait, is quite liberating once replicating some of the most historical paintings was involved. In other words, a do-it-yourself, digital self-portrait painting dedicated to maternity not only kept her sane but also released an outlet within her own domestic setting. She explains, in an attempt to distract myself from the daily abyss of lockdown and full political turmoil, I escaped into my self portraits. I explored pregnancy through the centuries, through different mediums. I found very few exciting portrayals through my very minimal, pregnancy-insomnia, online art history lesson binges, though I was particularly fueled by the female gaze of motherhood in Mary Cassatt's painting. Something about her tenderness towards her subjects made me look forward to a future cuddled up with my new little one, not just worrying if we would make it out of the hospital covid-free. Cait's portraits include re-staged naturalistic paintings by Christian Krohg and Edouard Manet and even Picasso's neoclassical, 1909 Maternity painting. Mainly using Instagram as her platform and then migrating to Tik Tok which raised a sensational amount of admiration from users, Cait grew her following relatively fast throughout this year. She talks to us about her discoveries.

Homage to Mother and Child by Christian Krohg

(Q.) What gave you the idea of recreating impressionist works of art?

Quarantine, and my pregnancy. It all started with my first doctor's appointment, and seeing Mary Cassatt's Mother and Child.  It was one of only two decorations hanging in my house growing up, and I had not seen that image anywhere but my parent's home. A print sits proudly in my parents' dining room, one of two pieces of art in the whole house (the other, a print of The Tub by Degas). I had been surrounded by these impressionist images, and had no idea they would become a strong connection to a sense of home until home was what I longed for.

Pregnancy is such a special, exciting time for a family and as the first grandchild (for both sides of the family), this would have been such a joyous time for us all. The coronavirus was a heavy, scary cloud over all of our heads - I couldn't hug my mother, or giggle with my sisters over little baby clothes. Baby showers were cancelled, and well wishes were sent over zoom. I spent almost my entire pregnancy under quarantine. 

The first doctor appointment after finding out I was pregnant, I looked up and saw Cassatt's painting. It comforted me, and I felt like I finally saw it for the first time. It felt like a hug from home, a sign that I was exactly where I was meant to be. 

(Q.) As a working mama, and photographer, how has the pandemic changed your everyday life?

Pregnant and under strict lockdown, all of my work began to dissipate. Weddings, events and portrait sessions were all impossible. Before I became pregnant, I promised myself I would document that special time (with no ideas on how). Quarantine, much like having a newborn, lowers all of your expectations for productivity. The slowness gives meaning to the passing of time. With no future of an industry in sight, and no societal expectations for a new mother to hop right back to work, I began to lift all of my internal barriers, watching all my external fears melt away. The distractions and societal norms that seemed to keep me from really asking myself what I am creating and who I am creating for - are gone.

(Q.) How do you choose your paintings?

The limitations of quarantine became exciting challenges for each photograph. While in lockdown, I was limited to creating art within the confines of my home. As a pregnant woman, I am considered an immunocompromised adult who should take extra precaution with lockdown - which I took as, "don't leave the house except for doctor appointments." This meant I had to choose what I could recreate in my backyard, or inside my home, with objects I already owned. I would pour over digital archives, (Google Arts & Culture, WikiArt, individual artist webpages) to find images that fit my limitations. In some instances, I used old paint and old used studio backdrops to paint my own backgrounds. In others, I digitally altered my household items (color change, blurring graphics) with photoshop. I was also limited in my health - lower energy levels and higher temperatures as quarantine rolled into summer, meant many images were too exhausting.

I am drawn to subjects that looked similar to myself - young, red haired - to ensure they have as many similarities as possible. I quickly found many of the French impressionists who focused mainly on subjects that looked like me.

(Q.) I noticed many of these types of re-enactment circulating the internet during the global lockdown. One, in particular, is a theatre designer who dressed her parents in art paintings, however, your maternity twist to it has yet to be seen (or at least I haven't seen any), why take this maternal approach?

Our modern western society glorifies hustle, instant gratification, and constant movement - quarantine broke that cycle, and returned the entire world, back into our homes. Maternity is similar, and one of the few chapters in modern life where we are expected to slow down and savor relaxation. Our society is relearning how to be slow again, which I consider a luxury. I began to recognize the same listless leisure time in the subjects of the paintings I was researching/drawn to. 2020 NYC could not look more different than late 1800s France, but I found that time was beginning to be spent in similar ways, domestically. Women were relegated to the home, and I found myself there as well (through very different circumstances). Mary Cassatt, a female painter in a field dominated by men, turned to the home / domestic space for her work - her female status granting her sacred space within intimate settings between mother and child in a way her male counterparts could not.

We are all just glued to our phones - the only connection outside of our homes - and begging for some way to understand, or feel, differently.

(Q.) Overall, what has this series provided you, as a mommy creator, and visual?

Like everyone, I needed a sense of distraction and escapism from the isolation. My posts were being so well received, which kept me going even past the birth of my son. If anything, his birth gave me further clarity. 

I wanted him to be a part of where I was emotionally. Motherhood saved me from quarantine, but my portraits saved me from motherhood. They gave me a way to interact with my son as not just his mother, but as the human, the artist, the photographer. They became a reminder that I existed outside of the role of his mother, by identifying as another mother, painted hundreds of years ago. The universality of the role let me escape the harshness of those first few weeks of newborn isolation. The isolation of quarantine, then compounded by the extreme emotional isolation of having a newborn, lifted all expectations I had on myself. If I could take one small step toward creating an image that connected us both, and made me feel connected to a larger timeline or role of creator and mother, then it was an incredible day. If I took no steps, and just spent time with my beautiful son and watched the time pass in our cocoon, then it was an incredible day.

Homage to Madame X by John Singer Sargent

 Cait is a professional photographer specializing in engagement and weddings; and owner of Cait McCarthy Photography. To view more of Cait's portraits, follow @caitbreault (Instagram) or @caitmcbro (Tik Tok)