Mothers get a lot of attention in painting and sculpture with a big boost from religious art about the Madonna and Child. Fathers tend to be left out of the picture.

All in the family

To adjust the focus in celebration of Father’s Day, Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee hailed two portraits of sons by their artist-fathers, citing their “tenderness, honesty, and complexity.” One of the paintings that checks Smee’s boxes is Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus, the only one of his four children to survive infancy. Despite the heavy shadows that typically cloud Rembrandt’s imagery, the boy’s adoring eyes watching his father paint him shine through to speak of their fond relationship.

But I draw a blank at Smee choosing Lucien Freud’s portrait of his son “Freddy.” What you see is a young man, tall and skinny like his father, standing in a corner stark naked. What’s more, Freud portrays his son, who is a trained dancer, as an awkward, gangly youth with his arms hanging limply at his side and looking glum.

Adding to the oddness of Smee’s choice is his acknowledgment that the figure lacks grace. He even goes so far as to compare it to the haunted men in Rodin’s monument the “Burghers of Calais.” Remember them? They offered their lives in the Hundred Years’ War in exchange for the liberation of their city. What does Freddy Freud have to do with any of that? And why does Freud picture his grown son nude?

Where’s the “tenderness” that Smee cited? Also unaccountable is this artist putting himself in the picture, in a window reflection wielding a paintbrush.

It’s not as if this painter was ever part of his children’s lives – 14 in all. As one of his other sons, David, told The Guardian, “My father, Lucien Freud, was hardly father material.” This is not to say that a painting must feature a father to show his family-man chops.

When it comes to Smee’s criteria of “tenderness, honesty, and complexity” I vote for in Gaudenzio Ferrari’s “The Holy Family with a Donor.” One look at Ferrari’s painting and you know how carefully he must have observed the mother of his own child to capture Mary’s feeling of wonder, warmth, and wariness for hers. Only a caring father could have painted this.

Getting one’s priorities straight

And to demonstrate that you don’t need to play up a religious painting to talk about male parenting, consider Van Gogh’s “First Step,” a description of a father intent on helping his child learn to walk. This intent is made obvious not only by the father’s arms outstretched to his child, but also by the inclusion of a wheelbarrow standing idly by. Clearly, the child’s needs take precedence over needed fieldwork. Van Gogh wasn’t a father, but he knew the value of being one, something Lucien Freud who sired 14 didn’t know.