fbpx Skip to content
Robert Rauschenberg
Mother of God, ca. 1950

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.


A restrained study of contrasting zones of sunlight and shadow, Robert Rauschenberg’s Quiet House—Black Mountain (1949) signals the importance photography held for the artist at the dawn of his career. As its title suggests, this picture was taken at Black Mountain College, where Rauschenberg studied in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Founded in 1933 near Asheville, North Carolina, the college represents a remarkable chapter in American progressive education, and remains renowned for its distinguished faculty and alumni in the arts. Rauschenberg’s tenure there coincided with what is generally understood as the most dynamic period in the school’s twenty-four-year existence—and, more broadly, as a defining moment in the history of the postwar American avant-garde. It was at Black Mountain, for example, that Rauschenberg began lasting collaborative relationships with visiting faculty members John Cage (1912–1992) and Merce Cunningham (1919–2009). Quiet House—Black Mountain, however, highlights the influence of other places and people the artist encountered while attending the famed school.

A small stone building designed and constructed in 1942 by alumnus Alex Reed, the Quiet House was conceived as a memorial for the late son of Black Mountain co-founder and faculty member Theodore Dreier. By 1948, the year Rauschenberg arrived at the rural campus, the Quiet House was a much cherished space for meditation and ceremonial use. Hazel Larsen Archer (1921–2001), the instructor with whom Rauschenberg first studied photography, frequently made images of the structure during her tenure at the school. Evocative of solitude or perhaps contemplation, Rauschenberg’s Quiet House—Black Mountain resonates with his mentor’s treatment of this beloved site.

One of Rauschenberg’s earliest photographs, this carefully composed picture suggests a pupil’s studied exploration of form, light, and shadow. Yet it also recalls the emphasis on line, form, light, and darkness in the black-and-white photographic abstractions of Aaron Siskind (1903–1991) and Harry Callahan (1912–1999), who Rauschenberg would come to know—and, in Siskind’s case, befriend—when they taught at Black Mountain during summer 1951. Engaging what Siskind famously described as “the drama of objects,” Rauschenberg would continue to examine the tension between the characteristics of an actual object and its photographic representation in later works. The image of a chair swathed in raking sunlight seems to have presented a particularly compelling study, reappearing in the Combine Pilgrim (1960), the multimedia installation Soundings (1968), and as both a silkscreened image and an actual chair in his Big D Eclipse (Shiner) (1990).

Ownership, Exhibition, and Publication Histories

Ownership History

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis, 1998

Exhibition History

Robert Rauschenberg, National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., October 30, 1976–January 2, 1977. Traveled to: Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 25–May 17, 1977; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 24–August 21, 1977; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, September 25–October 30, 1977; Art Institute of Chicago, December 3, 1977–January 15, 1978.

Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 15–August 11, 1991. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, September 27, 1991–January 5, 1992; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 8–April 19, 1992; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 14–August 16, 1992; Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, October 24, 1992–January 24, 1993.

Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, September 19, 1997–January 7, 1998. Traveled to: The Menil Collection, Houston, February 13–May 17, 1998; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, June 27–October 11, 1998; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, November 21, 1998–March 7, 1999.

Robert Rauschenberg, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 7–September 7, 1999.

Black Mountain College: Una aventura americana, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, October 28, 2002–January 13, 2003.

Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, January 30–June 24, 2003.

75 Years of Looking Forward: The Anniversary Show, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, December 19, 2009–January 16, 2011 (on view July 1, 2010–January 16, 2011).

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, October 10, 2015–January 24, 2016; Traveled to: Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, February 21–May 14, 2016; Did not travel to: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus, September 17, 2016–January 1, 2017.

In addition to appearing in the special exhibitions listed above, Quiet House—Black Mountain was shown in SFMOMA’s galleries in 1999, 2000, and 2005 as part of rotating presentations of the permanent collection.

This listing has been updated since the launch of the Rauschenberg Research Project and is complete as of August 31, 2016.

Publication History

Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1969), 171 (ill.).

Walter Hopps, ed., Robert Rauschenberg (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), 151 (ill.).

Rauschenberg Fotografia (Florence: Archivi Alinari, 1981), n.p. (ill.).

Rauschenberg Photographe (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Editions Herscher, 1981), n.p. (ill.).

Robert Rauschenberg Photographs (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), n.p. (ill.).

Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg, Art and Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 64 (ill.), 65.

———, “Quiet House,” Museum & Arts Washington 6, no. 6 (November/December 1990): 45 (ill.), 46 (ill.), 48 (ill.), 50 (ill.).

Walter Hopps, Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s (Houston: Houston Fine Art Press, 1991), 24, 39 (ill.).

Richard Gruber, Robert Rauschenberg: Through the Lens (Kansas City: University of Missouri, 1997), 8 (ill.), 9.

Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 32 (ill.), 54 (ill.).

Alice Thorson, “Rauschenberg Gifted in Vernacular of Photography; Exhibit Offers Solid Look at that Aspect of Painter’s Talent,” Kansas City Star, April 4, 1997.

Joachim Jäger, Das zivilisiert Bild: Robert Rauschenberg und seine Combine-Paintings der Jahre 1960–1962 (Klagenfurt, Austria: Ritter Verlag, 1999), 73 (ill.), 74–75.

Vincent Katz, ed., Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 157 (ill.).

Margarita Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 100 (ill.).

Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 265n43.

Sam Hunter, Robert Rauschenberg: Works, Writings and Interviews (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2006), 14 (ill.).

Janet Bishop, Corey Keller, and Sarah Roberts, eds., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: 75 Years of Looking Forward (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 432.

Carlos Javier Barcelon, “Whitney Photos Start with a Bang, End with a Bruise,” Columbia Spectator, February 4, 2009. Accessed June 23, 2013. https://www.columbiaspectator.com/2009/01/26/whitney-photos-start-bang-end-bruise.

Nicholas Cullinan, Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949–1962, ed. Susan Davidson and David White (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2011), 14 (ill.), 15, 21, 85 (ill.).

James Boaden, “Black Painting (with Asheville Citizen),” Art History 34 (February 2011): 182.

Robert Storr, Selections from the Private Collection of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2012), 86 (ill.).

Catherine Craft, Robert Rauschenberg (London: Phaidon, 2013), 18, 19 (ill.).

Kristine Stiles, ed., Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting (Durham, NC: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014), 6 (ill.).

Helen Molesworth with Ruth Erickson, eds., Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2015), 138, 139 (ill.).

This listing has been updated since the launch of the Rauschenberg Research Project and is complete as of August 31, 2016.

Markings and Inscriptions

Recto: None

Verso: Top edge of Masonite panel and center of adjacent wooden support, Rauschenberg studio registry number written in pencil: “50.3”

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Mother of God
Date created
ca. 1950
oil, enamel, printed maps, newspaper, and metallic paint on Masonite
48 in. × 32 1/8 in. (121.92 cm × 81.6 cm)
Date acquired
Fractional purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis and promised gift of an anonymous donor
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

Please note that artwork locations are subject to change, and not all works are on view at all times. If you are planning a visit to SFMOMA to see a specific work of art, we suggest you contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to confirm it will be on view.

Only a portion of SFMOMA's collection is currently online, and the information presented here is subject to revision. Please contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to verify collection holdings and artwork information. If you are interested in receiving a high resolution image of an artwork for educational, scholarly, or publication purposes, please contact us at copyright@sfmoma.org.

This resource is for educational use and its contents may not be reproduced without permission. Please review our Terms of Use for more information.