Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950
Robert Rauschenberg, Mother of God, ca. 1950; oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and metallic paint on Masonite, 48 in. x 32 1/8 in. (121.92 cm x 81.6 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Overview

A quietly beautiful collaged work, Robert Rauschenberg’s Mother of God (ca. 1950) is one of the artist’s earliest surviving paintings. Created by layering thickly painted areas with fragments of found maps, the composition mixes mechanical reproductions with tactile brushwork to yield a central circular form edged by both paint and paper. This combination and juxtaposition of materials blurs the usual distinctions between figure and ground, creating a tension between the mass-produced and handcrafted elements that is further heightened by the contrast of the cold, flat stripe of faded metallic paint across the painting’s lower edge and the fleshy white of the oil paint. The maps, which span nineteen American states and sections of Canada, were originally from a Rand McNally & Company atlas printed between 1949 and 1956. Yet while all of the cities charted in these fragments are identifiable, the collaged pieces act as an abstracted gridded backdrop for the painted white circle at the work’s center, a simple yet enigmatic form that suggests a face, a cloud, or a moon over a landscape.

After it debuted in 1951 at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition, Mother of God was lost for a number of years. When rediscovered, it was thought to be untitled. Rauschenberg later reconnected this painting with the title Mother of God because he associated that phrase with a circle. His religious upbringing gave Rauschenberg a solid understanding of Christian symbols and themes, and during the early 1950s he produced a number of works whose titles referenced religion, such as Trinity (ca. 1949) and Crucifixion and Reflection (ca. 1950). Though Rauschenberg never followed or established any strict iconography in his work, the white circle, seen through the lens of Christianity, may be read as a sign of eternity or motherhood. Mother of God’s religious undertones are amplified by a collaged advertisement for the Catholic Review, found in the lower right corner, which reads “An invaluable spiritual road map…” This bit of text draws together the title of the painting, the maps, and the spiritual allusions of the circle, yet it also walks a line between sincerity and tongue-in-cheek humor. With its interplay of paint, found materials, and puzzling text, Mother of God forecasts strategies and characteristics that would come to define Rauschenberg’s work by the late 1950s, and, in fact, occupy him throughout his life.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Mother of God
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
ca. 1950
Classification
painting
Medium
oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and metallic paint on Masonite
Dimensions
48 in. x 32 1/8 in. (121.92 cm x 81.6 cm)
Date acquired
1998
Credit
Collection SFMOMA
Fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor
Copyright
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Permanent URL
https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.299
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

Essay

Mother of God

By Susan Davidson, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

Over the past twenty years, scholarship on Robert Rauschenberg’s early artistic development has been largely informed by the exhibition and monograph organized in 1991 by Walter Hopps for the Menil Collection in Houston. In the installation and its related catalogue, both titled Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Hopps closely examined the groundbreaking experimentation undertaken by Rauschenberg between 1949 and 1954, charting the emergence of the principal themes and motifs that would come to define the sixty-year arc of the artist’s career.

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