Marisol and Motherhood: A Recurrent Theme As Seen in The Family, 1962 

by Gemma Cirignano 

Motherhood recurs as a theme throughout Marisol’s oeuvre with varying degrees of criticality: from satirical modern stereotypes to sincere personal memorials. Her sculpture The Family, 1962, approaches the subject with personal reverence despite illustrating anonymous figures from a photograph she found in her studio, left behind by a former tenant. The photograph captures a working-class mother from the 1920s or 30s posing with her four children: two daughters standing to her right, one son standing to her left, and an infant sitting on her lap. The spontaneous and intimate quality of the photograph captures a candid image of motherhood. Marisol balances her respect for the figure’s experience as a working-class mother with her feminist critique of traditional gender roles in Western culture.

Marisol constructs The Family primarily out of flat wooden planks layered vertically against the wall as if to recreate a domestic space. She repurposes two wooden doors for the background, adjoining and painting them white with an ornate blue pattern and leaving the left brass doorknob visible and unpainted, evincing its origin as a household object. Her translucent application of paint, gestural markings, and unerased graphite accentuate the candidness of the original photograph. Each figure occupies an individual plank, and she creates continuity through drawing: the son’s left arm extends onto the side of the mother’s plank, and the background pattern transitions seamlessly from one plank to the next. The overlapping images convey the familial comfort of a mother and her children nestling together to fit into the camera’s frame.

The mother is the central subject of the family portrait. Marisol makes this evident by giving the mother unique non-wooden features: plaster cast hands and used sneakers. Marisol focuses on her hands and feet to communicate the labor of motherhood. A mother is on her feet all day, using her hands to cook, clean, and comfort to ensure the well-being of her family. This lifestyle takes a toll on one’s body. Joan Simon addresses Marisol’s subtheme of hands, noting that they connote “not only the ability to work but probably also the quantity and quality.” In showcasing her own hands, Marisol draws a parallel between the manual labor of her wooden creation and motherhood. 

Marisol began exploring the theme of motherhood in tandem with the rise of second-wave feminism. Feminist writer Betty Friedan published her seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, just months after Marisol finished The Family. Marisol’s witty sculptures of bourgeois women, as seen in her homonymous work The Family, 1963, align with Friedan’s critique of the “happy housewife heroine” as an object of desire. The mother in this sculpture on the other hand represents the condition of motherhood before “‘Occupation: housewife,’ had hardened into a mystique.” Her interest in the previous generation of motherhood reveals a more personal connection with the subject.

Marisol’s own mother passed away when she was just eleven years old. Born in 1930, the artist would have been about the same age as the infant on the photographed mother’s lap. While she grew up in a motherless family, The Family depicts the opposite: a fatherless family. Although her upbringing in an affluent Venezuelan family based in Europe contrasts that of the photographed family, perhaps she saw herself in the portrait. She once said: “whatever the artist makes is always a kind of self-portrait.” In this sense, the work takes on the role of a memorial and aligns itself more closely with her later work Mi Mama Y Yo, 1968, also based on a photograph, this time a personal one of her and her mother.

The Family explores the psychological and physical effects of motherhood from a previous generation to emphasize their parallels in contemporary society and the artist’s life. Marisol’s material honesty reflects the authentic investigation of the hardships and rewards of motherhood. Through repeating and reinterpreting the subject of the mother, she attempts to resolve her own identity as neither a mother nor daughter, but rather as an artist.


Eleanor Heartney, “Marisol: A Sculptor of Modern Life,” in Marisol, edited by Lucinda H. Gedeon (Purchase, NY: Neuberger Museum of Art, 2001)

Sarah Suzuki, "Marisol (Marisol Escobar). The Family. 1962: MoMA," The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed October 14, 2021.

Cecile Whiting, “Figuring Marisol’s Femininities,” Canadian Art Review 18 (1991).

Joan Simon, “Chers Maîtres,” Art in America 69 (October 1981)

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)

Roberta Bernstein, “Marisol’s Self Portraits: The Dream and the Dreamer,” Arts 59 (March 1985).