“Madonna and Child” by Ruth Starr Rose
This lithograph by Ruth Starr Rose depicts Elizabeth Money, who worked for the Rose family watching over her sleeping daughter. The child sleeps in a cradle allegedly lent by Ruth Starr Rose to Moaney while she did housework for the family. An 18th century heirloom piece, it is still in the Rose family today. This scene is one of many realistic and dignified depictions of African-American life on Maryland’s Eastern Shore captured by Rose.
Elizabeth Moaney, the mother, is still alert, as if the baby has only just drifted of to sleep. Her arm and foot are poised to rock the magnificent cradle that, like a throne, frames the child. The ornate cradle contrasts with the dingier objects that the woman employs in her daily work: the broom and pail in the lefthand corner, and the overturned fruit basket that the mother sits on. She is faintly smiling as she gazes intently at her child; her expression is a source of warmth in itself. In addition, Ruth Starr Rose somehow manages to draw out a luminous quality from the black and white tones of the lithograph.
The richness of the light and dark values lend a quality to the scene that is hard to articulate: it is not quite realistic, but stylized to the point of looking like an illustration for a poster. And yet this depiction does not exploit or degrade the subject matter in any way, as a political poster might. In fact, by titling it Madonna and Child, Rose elevates the scene to an extraordinary height. The mother and child depicted here are ordinary, lifelike, but at the same time suggestive of the love that the Virgin Mary had for the infant Jesus.
Along with the title, the almost too-large proportions–the head and torso of the mother compared to her arms and legs, the oversized child, and the enormous headboard of the cradle itself–recall Medieval paintings and icons of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, where realistic perspective and proportions are ignored, and human figures exist apart from any concrete setting in space and time. Figures in Medieval paintings were not meant to be realistic representations of living people, but emblematic depictions of figures who were part of a higher, divine reality. Here, in Ruth Starr Rose’s lovely work, the exaggerated proportions are balanced by the soft luminosity of the tones, and the mother’s gentle and adoring gaze.