When a painter wins first-place in a prestigious competition, besting 2,580 other artists from 87 countries’, you expect to see something out of the ordinary. Instead what you get with the BP Portrait Award 2017, announced on June 30 in London, is not all that remarkable. This is surprising. It’s not as if the prize were handed out by an unknowing organization. BP has been at it every year for close to three decades.

A case of poor judgment

Yet, the press releases have the judges exulting over #Benjamin Sullivan’s double portrait of his wife nursing their eight-month-old daughter, praising the tenderness and intimacy of the image and even going so far as to say that the work calls to mind #Madonna And Child imagery by the Old Masters.

Advertisements
Advertisements

I couldn’t disagree more.Through the ages, artists have taken on the subject of motherhood.

Many of those of the Madonna and Child, particularly of the 16th and 17th centuries, demonstrate the very tenderness and intimacy credited to Sullivan. His version portrays a woman weary, so weary that she looks as if she is about to drop her infant. Everything in the painting seems to droop, including the pronounced vertical folds of her bathrobe and the strand of her hair that falls on her chest. And the coloration – all in dull browns – adds to the drooping air.

Invoking Madonna and Child paintings is a bad idea

In contrast to Sullivan’s picture, even though Madonna and Child paintings are about divine devotion, the masterful ones also describe women who are actively engaged with their infants whether nursing or not.

Advertisements

Consider, say, “#The Holy Family With a Donor” by Gaudenzio Ferrari.

You see a woman standing over her newborn at her feet. Despite the distance, her attachment to him is palpable. She inclines her head toward him, holding her arms with a cradling motion while he reaches up to her. That’s what tenderness and intimacy look like - unless the British do it differently.

What were you thinking?

Also consider Domenico Puligo’s “St. Benignus and St. Placidus,” a description of the holy infant as a typical baby squirming on his mother’s lap. And in a like way, the artist depicts the Divine Mother as a typical mother trying to hold fast her wriggling baby with a loving hand.

Compare that with Sullivan’s work. While his wife is physically connected to their baby as it suckles, there’s no emotional connection. There’s only a drained, ready to drop woman. Her listlessness has you worrying that she will let the child fall from her. If this double portrait were said to be about the exhaustion that comes with caring for a newborn, the sleepless nights and on-demand feeding, Sullivan’s painting would have my vote.