Breastfeeding: Mary Cassatt and Francois Clouet
Left: François Clouet, A Lady at Her Bath, c. 1571. Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Right: Mary Cassatt, Maternité, 1890. Pastel. Private collection.

Breasts have been a source of fascination for millennia. Art Historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer explores some of the ways they’ve been pictured in western art including how breastfeeding was seen through the eyes of the female painter Mary Cassatt and how the erotic dimension of breasts in other works was meant to titillate a male audience.

Table of Contents
Breasts as a Source of Life
On the Imagery of Mary Nursing the Christ Child
Picturing Wet Nurses In 16th-Century France
Mary Cassatt: Breastfeeding Seen Through The Eyes Of A Woman Artist
Adult Breastfeeding as a Charitable Act
From “Breast Bowls” to Champagne Coupes
Severed Breasts
When a Breast Gets in the Way
Addressing the “Beautiful” Breast and the “Ugly” Breast
Breasts: A Self-Portrait

Lumpy, bumpy, smooth, taught, slack, somewhat symmetrical or very uneven, breasts come in all shapes, colors and sizes, with often marked differences occurring in the same person. They are a source of pleasure, of pain, of sustenance—and of death, with one in every eight women in the U.S. alone developing invasive breast cancer during her lifetime. 

Whether you longed to get them or dreaded their arrival, whether you were genetically predisposed to grow them or acquired them through surgery, your breasts are a part of your identity, and from a sociocultural perspective, they are subject to a wide range of powerful associations that have varied across time and place. Breasts have consequently been a source of fascination and inspiration for artists for millennia, and many thought-provoking issues come to light when zeroing in on how this particular anatomical feature has been visualized over the years.   

Niccolò Tribolo, the statue of Nature: breasts’ milk-making ability and symbol of fertility
Niccolò Tribolo, La Nature, ca. 1529. Marble. Musée National du Château, Fontainebleau.

Breasts as a Source of Life 

Among breasts’ many characteristics, their capacity to produce milk ranks high as a point of focus for individuals representing the feminine body at different times and in various media. Heck, pretty much everyone I know who has had the opportunity to taste the stuff has, and the consensus is that it’s sweet. In fact, adult breastfeeding is a thing, but I will get back to that particular fetish in a little while. For now, let’s just acknowledge that breasts’ milk-making ability has made them a favorite symbol of fertility and life-giving powers throughout the histories of many cultures, yielding a variety of artistic representations, some rather fantastical in appearance. Created by Florentine artist Niccolò Tribolo (1500–1550), the statue of Nature illustrated here is an excellent case in point. Drawing on representations of the ancient goddess Diana of Ephesus, Tribolo’s figure features a body consisting of rows of pendulous breasts among which scamper a variety of creatures, including amphibians, satyrs and a mythical bird feeding on a swollen teat! 

Breastfeeding: Hans Memling, The Virgin and Child
Hans Memling, The Virgin and Child, ca. 1485–94. Oil on panel. Private collection.

On the Imagery of Mary Nursing the Christ Child  

In the West, the rise of Catholicism, and with it the cult of the Virgin, resulted in the spread of different kinds of images, including those of Mary nursing the Christ Child. The subject gave artists an opportunity to emphasize the pair’s humanity by showing them as mother and son bonded through tender interaction. In Renaissance painting, Mary and Christ sometimes gaze at each other while he nurses, although he is often shown looking out at the viewer. The purpose of establishing this connection with the viewer was to draw a parallel between Mary nourishing her son with her milk, and Christ in turn later nourishing his faithful with his blood and body through his sacrifice at the time of the Crucifixion (reenacted each time wine and bread are consumed at Mass). Artists often privileged devotional impact over anatomical correctness in these pictures, so that Christ, who typically has the air of an old man (a sign of his wisdom), is frequently represented feeding from an awkwardly positioned breast.

Breasts and breastfeeding in art: François Clouet, A Lady at Her Bath
François Clouet, A Lady at Her Bath, c. 1571. Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Wet Nurses: French (Fontainebleau or Avon), The Nurse
French (Fontainebleau or Avon), possibly after a model by Guillaume Dupré, The Nurse, modeled ca. 1607-8. Lead-glazed earthenware. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Picturing Wet Nurses In 16th-Century France 

While until the 19th century, Mary nursing the Christ Child tended to dominate the iconography of breastfeeding, the subject occasionally surfaced in secular art as well, particularly in images of wet nurses, whose lives in reality were anything but idyllic. Though he advocated the benefits of mothers breastfeeding their own child, French physician Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) knew full well that it was customary for his contemporaries to hire wet nurses and so wrote several chapters on the topic in his book dealing with obstetrics (1573). The treatise even includes an illustration of the nipple guard Paré invented to protect ulcerated breasts, although any child made to nurse through it would have been sucking on poisonous lead! As for the wet nurse’s ideal characteristics, Paré specified everything from her age (25 to 35) to her “moral constitution” (sex, for instance, was discouraged on the grounds that it could corrupt breastmilk!). The physician indicates that her breasts should be neither too small nor too big, and have already nursed, “given that breasts that have been full have veins and arteries that are thicker and more dilated, and for this reason will contain more milk.”

As a woman painting women in the late 19th-century, Mary Cassatt’s representations of breastfeeding shed a different kind of light on the subject. 

Tightly swaddled newborns attached to the bulging breasts of wholesome wet nurses of a kind Paré would have approved of appear in several 16th-century French images. Typically, these portray in the foreground a courtly lady taking a bath after giving birth as was customary, while the wet nurse is relegated to the background. In this manner, a clear division is created between the (passive) breast meant to be displayed and contemplated, and the (active) swollen breast serving a purely utilitarian function. No overlap there, except in their commodification. Ultimately, these figures of the wet nurse and her charge gained a separate visual existence in the form of earthenware statuettes first made in 17th-century France and then produced in England by the Chelsea Manufactory. Once divorced from their original courtly context, the pair became a vehicle for celebrating a universal ideal of maternity.   

Breastfeeding through woman's eyes: Mary Cassatt, Maternité, 1890
Mary Cassatt, Maternité, 1890. Pastel. Private collection.

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926): Breastfeeding Seen Through The Eyes Of A Woman Artist 

As a woman painting women in the late 19th-century, Mary Cassatt’s representations of breastfeeding shed a different kind of light on the subject. The American painter and printmaker spent much of her career in France where she befriended Edgar Degas and frequently exhibited with the Impressionists. Cassatt specialized in images of mothers caring for their children since she had steady access to their lives, and their relationship offered much to explore. Though Cassatt rarely focused on the actual act of nursing, when she did the result was invariably invested with remarkable intimacy and veracity, courtesy of details that speak of careful firsthand observation on the part of the artist. Anyone who has nursed will recognize the serious, slightly anxious look of the baby in the pastel illustrated here. The expression speaks of the concentration and effort required to obtain mother’s milk, and also of the relief/pleasure at being fed. The pair are harmoniously fused, with the mother gazing tenderly at her child whose head she expertly props up, and whose leg and fingers she gently brushes with her hand. Her partially consumed breast is at the heart of Cassatt’s composition, the serenity of which is complimented by the vibrant strokes of pink that describe her open gown.

Vincent Sellaer (active 1538–1544), Allegory of Charity
Vincent Sellaer (active 1538–1544), Allegory of Charity, undated. Oil on panel. Private collection.
Adult breastfeeding: Peter Paul Rubens, Cimon and Pero: Caritas Romana
Peter Paul Rubens, Cimon and Pero: Caritas Romana, ca. 1630. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Adult Breastfeeding as a Charitable Act 

The notion of breasts as the ultimate source of life-giving sustenance also has a long visual history in allegorical terms. The concept of Charity, for example, has traditionally been represented as a woman swarmed by children, a couple of whom typically suckle her breasts. But women aren’t always portrayed breastfeeding infants. Images of Roman Charity brought the link between nursing and devotion to an entirely new level; these portray the ancient story of Pero who breastfed her father, Cimon, to save him from starvation during his imprisonment. Some variations tell of a woman saving her mother this way, and while this was also depicted in art, it was the father-daughter version that was most frequently represented. A story that was considered the ultimate expression of love for one’s parent provided many 16th and 17th-century artists with an excuse to portray adult breastfeeding, and more specifically an elderly man sucking on the breast of a beautiful young woman. Although all of these images were steeped in grand moralizing messages, there is no denying that they often possess an erotic dimension meant to titillate a male audience. In Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens’s version, that voyeuristic gaze is actually built into the composition courtesy of the guards leering at Cimon and Pero through the prison bars…

In general, in western art history, women’s bodies have had to remain whole and pleasing, unless the (male) artist is the one doing the dissecting.

From “Breast Bowls” to Champagne Coupes  

And incidentally, breast milk isn’t the only drink associated with breasts. Legend has it that the champagne coupe was modelled on the breast of Queen Marie-Antoinette of France (1755–1793). While this is fiction rather than fact, a designer at the royal Sèvres manufactory did come up with the “Bol Sein” (“Breast Bowl”), a porcelain vessel also rumored to have been based on the Queen’s breast and commissioned by her to serve fresh goat’s milk to guests visiting her at the Dairy of Rambouillet, one of her many bucolic retreats. The cup, which features a truncated breast resting on a tripod of goat’s heads, links the breast to the milking of animals while simultaneously “elevating” it through the use of the luxurious material of porcelain, thereby fetishizing the appendage in a manner meant to appeal to aristocratic fantasy. That there existed a myth that the bowl was actually molded on Marie-Antoinette’s breast only added to their allurel, since it reinforced the connection between object and actual body party—one belonging to an infamous woman no less. And in case you might think such things are the stuff of a distant, decadent past, keep in mind that just a few years ago Kate Moss lent her left breast to the design of a champagne coupe by Jane McAdam Freud, which was commissioned by London’s Mayfair restaurant 34 to celebrate the model’s career.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha of Sicily
Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha of Sicily, detail, 1630–33. Fabre Museum, Montpellier.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Night
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Night, from the Tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours, 1526–1531. Marble. Sagrestia nuova, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence.

Severed Breasts 

Sèvres’ “Bol Sein” taps into a fascinating tradition of portraying the breast severed from the body to which it belongs. Saint Agatha of Sicily was said to have rejected the advances of a Roman governor and was subsequently forced into a brothel, where she was horrifically tortured for her faith, which included having her breasts shorn off. The martyred Saint is easily identified in works of art since she is usually represented holding a platter displaying her cut breasts, while new breasts are discernible beneath her garments, Saint Peter having healed her wounds. If you go to Catania, Sicily in February you’ll doubtlessly see for sale “minne di Sant’Agata,” ricotta cakes with cherry “nipples” emulating Agatha’s cut breasts, made in honor of her feast day. The inspiration for these pastries may have come from the imagery of her breasts on a tray as these were sometimes mistaken for the loaves of bread, highlighting the intersection of divinity, flesh and food that often surfaces in Catholic doctrine. 

It’s not surprising then that among many other things, Agatha is the patron saint of bakers, and also of those suffering from breast cancer. According to some medical specialists, this deadly disease has its own history in art; some have recognized in certain works figures with breasts showing signs of malignant tumors. In particular, the left breast of Michelangelo’s Night is often cited as an example, because it seems to comprise swelling in the areola and skin retraction near the nipple. This remains a matter of debate, however, in part because artists at the time very rarely used women as live models. Moreover, Michelangelo was interested more in creating philosophical ideals of beauty than strictly emulating reality (the huge amount of space between both of Night’s breasts is a pretty clear indication of the sculptor’s willingness to take license with anatomical accuracy). 

Alexander welcoming Thalestris and the Amazons
Master FG, Alexander welcoming Thalestris and the Amazons, mid-16th century. Engraving. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

When a Breast Gets in the Way

Severed breasts are also significant in relation to the Amazons, described in Greek mythology as great female warriors and hunters living in Scythia in a society strictly governed by women (you may remember it as the kingdom of origin of Marvel’s Wonder Woman). It was said that the Amazons cauterized the right breast of their girls to prevent its growth, and therefore remove any obstacle that might hamper their ability to draw a bow and arrow or shoot a lance. Nevertheless, Amazons are traditionally shown in art with both breasts, sometimes one bare and the other covered with fabric knotted at the shoulder. While artists might have had little difficulty representing severed breasts on their own, showing a feminine body lacking one breast—especially when intentionally removed by a woman for the purpose of enhancing her power—was an entirely different matter. In general, in western art history, women’s bodies have had to remain whole and pleasing, unless the (male) artist is the one doing the dissecting. 

Addressing the “Beautiful” Breast and the “Ugly” Breast

That dissecting could result in imagery that negates the female body entirely. An anonymous 16th-century woodcut illustration, for instance, represents the breast as a “floating” circle featuring a smaller circle and closely spaced arched lines, in an arrangement that calls to mind a distant planet rather than anything human. The image was made to accompany a “blason,” a type of poem directly addressing and praising a particular body part—in this case, a “beautiful” breast (then defined as youthful, firm, unblemished and nurturing). It was written by French poet Clément Marot (1496–1544), whose work came out of a literary tradition defined by the Florentine writer and humanist, Petrarch (1304–74). 

But while Petrarch wrote about his beloved Laura’s unparalleled perfection, Marot also took to writing “contreblasons,” poems that attack a particular object in venomous terms. So Marot set about writing a blason for the “ugly” breast, which he qualified as flacid, rancid, sack-like, stolen from an “old dead goat” and serving to “feed the child of Lucifer in hell.” For Marot, the ugly breast is ugly because it is old, and this triggers revulsion in the poet because it is a reminder of his own mortality, of the slackened texture his own skin will take on with age. One thing Marot’s so-called “beautiful” and “ugly” breasts have in common is that they have been entirely appropriated by his writer’s gaze to serve exclusively as either a repository for his desire or his terror. The individuals from which they have been metaphorically sliced have no agency here; rather they are treated as mere footnotes by Marot and the artists who illustrated his words.

Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed
Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed, 1828. Watercolor on ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Breasts: A Self-Portrait 

To conclude, I thought it fitting to consider a remarkable image by the 19th-century artist Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853), which is now in the Metropolitan Museum. A native of Templeton, Massachusetts, Goodridge was successful enough as a painter of portrait miniatures that she was not only able to support herself but several of her relatives as well—an unusual feat for a woman artist at the time. The work in question is a self-portrait not of Goodridge’s face, but of her breasts, framed by a delicate cloth of the same creamy color (the color of the ivory on which the image was painted). The perfection of Goodridge’s skin suggests this is an idealized representation, though the artist did record a mole and the slight asymmetry of her breasts. In the 19th century, people commonly exchanged miniatures showing a body part, such as an eye or a mouth, as mementos and tokens of affection. Goodridge chose to record a private, erotically charged part of her body to share as a gift with Daniel Webster (1782–1852), a lawyer and politician with whom she had a relationship for several years, though their union never ended in marriage even after his wife passed away, seemingly because of his career ambitions. In this instance then, we have a woman turning her gaze on herself and wielding a metaphorical scalpel as well as a very real brush to produce an intimate depiction of her breasts, intended no doubt to please her lover, but we can assume also herself. Once again, we have an image of breasts on display, but in this case, their owner is very much present by virtue of the fact that she was the one to immortalize them for an audience of her choosing.  

Today, women artists of many different backgrounds are taking ownership so to speak of (their) breasts, finding meaningful and thought-provoking ways of portraying them so as to open up crucial discussions about sexuality, race, gender, breastfeeding, and self-empowerment. Among some of my favorites are Cassie Arnold, Somaya Critchlow, Indu Harikumar, Emma Low, Jenny Saville, and Lauren J. Turner. If you aren’t already familiar with them, take a moment to discover their work, and that of other women artists whose visualizations of breasts invite us to take a closer look at ourselves and what we hope for our futures. 

Art historian and art dealer Yassana Croizat-Glazer of YCG Fine Art is showing Allen Hirsch: Up Lafayette Street until May 5. Allen Hirsch and YCG Fine Art will donate part of the proceeds from this exhibition to City Harvest, New York’s largest food rescue organization, feeding over 1.5 million locals a year, a cause all the more crucial given the current pandemic.