Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, breastfeeding her baby Katherine

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Evening. Mother + Child (1886-87), Charles Walter Stetson (1858 -1911), oil on panel, 17" x 14"
(Image © Christopher and Melinda Ratcliffe)

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Christopher and Melinda Ratcliffe, owners of the above painting by Charles Walter Stetson (first husband of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and father of Katharine), have kindly offered this website the opportunity to post this stunning mother/daughter image, adding yet another important piece to the Gilman literary canon.

Mr. Ratcliffe says,

My wife and I own the only known painting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman with her daughter Katharine. There are two other known paintings of Charlotte; one by Charles Walter Stetson which was completed prior to their marriage (whereabouts unknown) and the other by Charlotte’s cousin, Nellie Hale, which is in the Smithsonian Hall of Portraits.

In this painting titled Evening. Mother + Child and dated 1886-1887, Charlotte is breastfeeding Katharine. Charles Walter Stetson writes in his journal that the painting was from a sketch made of Charlotte and Katharine in 1885. As you will see, Charlotte looks very melancholy, the significance of which is that she was suffering from a severe case of postpartum depression, which was the basis for her story The Yellow Wallpaper (which was also adapted for an episode of Masterpiece Theatre). Also note that she wears her wedding ring on her right finger.

In her autobiography, Charlotte writes the following:

"The baby? I nursed her for five months. I would hold her close--that lovely child!--and instead of love and happiness, feel only pain. The tears ran down on my breast....Nothing was utterly more bitter than this, that even motherhood brought no joy."

The painting was exhibited at the Providence Art Club in May of 1887. It was sold (we believe by Charlotte) to Mrs. GV Cresson of Narragansett, RI, and Philadelphia, PA, in October of 1888 (we believe to fund Charlotte’s trip to Pasadena, CA, where she settled after leaving her husband).

Charlotte had stayed with Mrs. Cresson in Philadelphia while she was being evaluated by Dr. Wier Mitchell, who prescribed the now infamous “rest cure” which mandated that Charlotte have but two hours of intellectual stimulation per day, have her child with her at all times and never pick up a pen or paintbrush as long as she lives. Just months after beginning the “rest cure,” Charlotte had a nervous breakdown.

Mrs. Cresson died in 1907 and her husband died in 1908. We believe the painting was then purchased from the Cresson estate by Charles Walter Stetson and given to Katharine in 1909. It was then included in the Memorial Exhibition of 1913, after Stetson's death in 1911. An image of the painting was included in a book titled The Selected Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was published in April 2009.

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Text © Christopher Ratcliffe and posted with permission. Image posted with permission of Christopher and Melinda Ratcliffe and may not be posted or published elsewhere without permission from the owners.*

1 comment:

  1. As a psychoanalyst, Gilman has always impressed me with the depth of her knowledge about insanity, specifically paranoia - even though she had not read Freud. Freud published the Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. Little of his work was available in English in the 19th Century.

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