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Breastfeeding as art; ‘Nursing the Nation’

By Emma Colton


Complemented by countless examples of European art depicting breastfeeding mothers, the “Colloquium for the Recognition of Faculty Research and Creative Activity” on Wednesday, Nov. 7 explored the European obsession with breastfeeding.

Nominated by academic colleagues, history professor Cynthia Paces gave an engaging presentation, “Nursing the Nation: Gender and Visual Culture in Modern Europe.”

Paces takes a closer look at breastfeeding in European art and ads (Lianna Lazur / Staff Photographer).

“All women can do this, but you have to have a nice couch,” Paces said, wittily remarking on the accepted breastfeeding beliefs of the 19th Century.

A self-proclaimed lover of Prague, Paces’ talk stemmed from her findings of Czech visual culture and gender, which she thoroughly explored in her most recent book, “Prague Panoramas: National Memory and Sacred Space in the Twentieth Century.”

While taking frequent trips throughout Europe, Paces examined art, specifically sculptures, with a sensitive eye for gender and its relation to nationalism.  This eye led her to her current project, studying late 19th and early 20th Century European images of breastfeeding mothers.

“The hallmark of the Victorian era is the hystericization of women,” Paces said.  She explained the inundation of how women were told to properly maintain their bodies, especially to ensure healthy reproduction.  This bombardment pushed the women to hysteria.

Paces explained that the deluge of physical and sexual ideals of the era was followed by an influx of woman having more prominent roles in society, especially professionally.

Infant formula was created in 1867 and allowed women more freedom to work outside the home, Paces explained.  However, the formula was challenged by critics, because they found connections between the artificial food and the rising deaths of infants.

“I just thought it was really interesting because I never thought to look into something like that before,” said Sarah Ponsini, freshman secondary education and history double major.

Paces then presented various public ads denouncing the use of infant formula to the crowd of attentive professors and students.

Some of the ads were tender, like a healthy mother and a suckling infant. Others depressing, like a darkly dressed mother sobbing over an empty crib.

“The one thing I see over and over again is the German public campaigns are scary. You know, they always have graves. And the French ones, they’re always, like, the mother and she’s watching the baby, and there’s a poem at the bottom,” Paces said.

These words couldn’t be more true to form. By far, the most horrifying and hysterical of the ads presented by Paces was a German ad from 1906. It was illustrated by menacing gravestones aligned in a cemetery. The gravestones marked the amount of deaths of bottle-fed infants to breast-fed infants. The bottle-fed gravestones towered above the breast-fed gravestones.

Paces explained that whether the ads were warm or menacing, they all had one thing in common: The mother was responsible for the health of her child.



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