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.
This entry has
been updated from December 2008, when this it was first posted.
Mr. Ratcliffe writes*,
My wife and I own
this painting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman with her daughter, Katharine. The
artist was Charlotte’s first husband, Charles Walter Stetson.
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 copied from a sketch
he made of Charlotte and Katharine in 1885. The painting was done using the
glow of a lamplight, giving it a very intimate air. We believe that the artist
painted her likeness through a mirror, thus her wedding ring appears on the
you can see, Charlotte’s features express a profound melancholia, the
significance being that she was suffering from a severe case of postpartum
depression after the birth of Katharine. This depression became the basis for
her story The Yellow Wallpaper
. In her autobiography, Charlotte
describes her feelings in the following manner:
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.
painting was exhibited at the Providence Art Club in May of 1887 while
Charlotte was in Pennsylvania being treated by Dr. Weir Mitchell. It was sold
(we believe by Charlotte) to Mrs. George Cresson of Narragansett, Rhode Island,
and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in October of 1888. It is our belief that its
sale was used to partially fund Charlotte’s October trip to Pasadena, California,
where she settled after leaving her husband.
Cresson died in 1907 and her husband died in 1908. We believe the painting was
either purchased from the Cresson estate by Charles Walter Stetson or left to
Katharine by the Cresson estate. Probate records from the Cresson estate do not
give specifics on how their artwork was divided. Regardless, the painting was
given to Katharine in 1909 (Charles references the gift of the painting to
Katharine in his diary). It was then included in the Memorial Exhibition of
1912-1914, after Stetson’s death in 1911, traveling to the Metropolitan Museum
in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Pennsylvania Academy of
Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Museum of Art, and the
Toledo Museum of Art, among others. The title of the painting during the
exhibition was changed to Mother Nursing
painting is on a mahogany panel that at one time was broken into five pieces
and has an intricate repair that looks to have been done around the time that
the painting was completed. Charlotte’s diary entry from Saturday, October 9th states:
Stop at Walter’s.
Criticize his pictures, one so harshly from a moral point of view that he
smashes & burns it. I feel badly; and after some tears he comes home with
know from Charles’s diary that Stetson was working on the painting in November
1886 and that it was completed on February 5th, 1887. But why did the
composition take so long? One theory is that it was this painting, with Charlotte breastfeeding Katharine that Charles
smashed and then repaired.
according to historical records from October 9, 1886, the temperature reached
84 degrees on that date making it doubtful that Stetson would have lit the
fireplace in his Providence studio.
painting was exhibited at the Belmont Sewall House and Museum in Washington D.C. in 2012 and 2013.
Text © Christopher Ratcliffe, 2008 - present, and
posted with permission. Image posted with permission of Christopher and Melinda
Ratcliffe and may not be posted or published elsewhere without permission from