Conceived in 1956, Mother and Child with Apple belongs to a series of works exploring the playful relationship between a mother and her child, which Henry Moore executed in the early 1950s. A mother tenderly embraces her infant as he stretches towards an apple she holds in her hand. The sculpture evokes a scene of play and learning, symbolically rich in meaning: the maternal figure is presented as a nourishing source, but also – by showing the fruit of the earth to the child – as the source of knowledge, the gate through which the new-born is introduced to the world. Although figurative, the sculpture illustrates the gentle curves and abstract roundness of Moore’s forms. Both mother and child appear as rocks polished by persistent winds and flowing waters.
Mother and Child with Apple explores a central theme in Moore’s work. The mother and child group figured among the very first sculptures the artist executed in 1922 and, together with the reclining figure, the subject would occupy Moore for his entire career. The ‘mother and child’ theme assumed even more emphasis after 1943, when Moore was commissioned to produce a ‘Madonna and Child’ for the Church of St. Matthew in Northampton. The confrontation with that sacred theme forced Moore to meditate on the theme more thoroughly: ‘The Madonna and Child should have an austerity and a nobility and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday Mother and Child’, Moore noted (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture, with Comments by the Artist, London, 1981, p. 90). With its spontaneous sense of gesture and informal pose, Mother and Child with Apple seems to refute the rigid connotation of sacred art, yet the depiction of the infant Jesus playing with a fruit – usually a pomegranate or some red grapes symbolising his sacrifice – is part of the iconographic tradition of the Virgin and Child. Masaccio’s Virgin and Child (National Gallery, London) portrays the infant Christ eating some grapes, held in his mother’s hand. While working on a project for the London Underground in 1928, Moore had used Masaccio’s work as a source of inspiration and it is possible that the composition may have also influenced his 1943 Madonna and Child. With Mother and Child with Apple Moore has introduced a playful, domestic note in the theme of the mother and child, while also subtly invoking the sacred undertones of the image’s tradition.
Formally, Mother and Child with Apple offered Moore the opportunity to explore another sculptural variation of a given theme. Combining two interlacing forms of different scales, the theme of the mother and child became a recurrent, inexhaustible source of invention for the artist. Moore affirmed: ‘The “Mother and Child” idea is one of my two or three obsessions, one of my inexhaustible subjects. This may have something to do with the fact that the “Madonna and Child” was so important in the art of the past and that one loves the old masters and has learned so much from them. But the subject itself is eternal and unending, with so many sculptural possibilities in it – a small form in relation to a big form, the big form protecting the small one, and so on. It is such a rich subject, both humanly and compositionally, that I will always go on using it’ (H. Moore in 1979, quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 213). Mother and Child with Apple seems to explore the contrast between movement and stasis: as the child paws on his mother’s lap, she sits still with reassuring immobility. Meanwhile, the striving arms of both figures create in the air a wonderful arabesque of resonating curves. Pushing the creative boundaries of the artist, the mother and child composition ultimately becomes the very symbol of the creative act of the artist himself. As Gail Gelburd observed: ‘Moore’s involvement in this theme reaches beyond maternity to an inquiry into birth and creativity. The theme of the mother and child, the mother giving birth, the child struggling to emerge from the maternal womb, is like the stone giving birth to the form, the form struggling to emerge from the block of stone’ (Mother and Child: The Art of Henry Moore, exh. cat., Hempstead, New York, 1987, p. 37).