Moore created Mother and Child: Block Seat at the end of a long line of distinguished sculptures on the subject of maternity, his most widely admired signature theme. Among his earliest surviving works in carved stone is Mother and Child, 1922 (Lund Humphries, no. 3). "The 'Mother and Child' is one of my two or three obsessions, one of my inexhaustible subjects,” the sculptor wrote in 1979. “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" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 213).
Having already done more than twenty sculptures on the Mother and Child theme, Moore received a commission in 1943 to carve a Madonna and Child for St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton, England (Lund Humphries, no. 226). This project gave Moore cause to reflect upon the long tradition of western religious art, and to focus on the ways in which a Madonna and Child differs from a purely secular Mother and Child. “The Madonna and Child should have an austerity and a nobility,” Moore wrote, “and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday Mother and Child” (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture, with comments by the artist, London, 1981, p. 90).
The universal and monumental aspect of this stone carving, completed in 1944, with the Madonna seated in serene repose as she supports the infant Christ in her lap, became the paradigm for many of the Mother and Child sculptures of later years, with the result that the religious aspect of the subject was largely subsumed within a secular context. This transformation is especially apparent in the present Mother and Child: Block Seat; Moore's old master sources remain evident, even while having been radically restated in the syntax of modernist abstraction. One may interpret the significance of the subject in various ways, according it either a sacred or secular meaning, while recognizing that it exists in an eternal, mythic dimension with a comforting humanist message.
During the years 1975-1985 Moore created more images of the Mother and Child than in any other period of his career. The travertine marble Mother and Child: Hood, 1983 (Lund Humphries, no. 851) and the present Mother and Child: Block Seat are the sculptor’s final representations of this theme on a monumental scale. In contrast to other sculptures of this subject, in which Moore often created a restive or even boisterous infant with some recognizable naturalistic characteristics, he has in this very late work cast the shape of the child as an elemental, virtually abstract form, as if to represent it in an early stage of development, that of a fetus having been newly born into the world as an infant. The effect, as Moore described it, of "the big form protecting the small form" is especially compelling in this instance: the infant, having left the protective body of its mother, is utterly exposed and helpless, a condition which has prompted the mother to bend, twist and lean from her Madonna-like state of repose to carefully cradle the child in her arm, while turning her head downwards in concerned regard for the vulnerability and needs of her newborn offspring.
Mother and Child: Block Seat also represents an extension of Moore’s conception of “Internal-External Forms” (cf. Lund Humphries, no. 297). “This became an established idea with me–that of an outer protection to an inner form,” the sculptor explained, “and it may have something to do with the mother and child idea; that is where there is the relation of the big thing to the little thing, and the protection idea” (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., 2002, p. 214). Gail Gelburd has written that the present sculpture “is the Internal/ External form expanded so that the fetus has just emerged from the enveloping mother figure. It is the Madonna and Child simplified. In the maquette of 1981 [Lund Humphries, no. 836] the original idea was more convoluted and more reminiscent of the 1944 Madonna and Child. But as the artist reworked the image to larger than life size he turned to the simplification found in the Internal/External forms. He finds in this simplification a monumentality for his last major work. Here, as in so many of his works, the external space pushes while the internal form breaks out. The massive forms are opened from within. The exterior reveals the possibilities from within and seeks to strike a harmonized balance between the two forces” (Mother and Child: The Art of Henry Moore, exh. cat., Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, 1987, p. 37).
The abstract impulse that became increasingly manifest in Moore’s late sculptures follows on his belief that “We must relate the human figure to animals, to clouds, to the landscape–bring them all together. By using them like metaphors in poetry, you give new meaning to things” (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., 2002, p. 122). “Connotations of this kind, which are ultimately designed to engage the viewer’s spirit, are even more evident in Moore’s last oversized mother and child representation: Mother and Child, Block Seat of 1983-1984,” Christa Lichtenstern has written. “The relevant plaster maquette, presumably developed from a pebble, is still on view in the studio in Much Hadham, as is the monumental bronze on the grounds of the Henry Moore Foundation, perfectly placed in an avenue of trees: the branches of the tall trees meet up above the figure. In this situation the majestic motif of a gateway of trees...becomes reality and in a sense ennobles this late work. Once again the natural surroundings are at one with the internal processes of the sculptural form: the inward, actively protective gesture that runs from the head through the elongated left arm into the child is taken up and paraphrased by the sheltering arc of the trees. In Mother and Child: Block Seat we also see clearly the way in which Moore, in his late works, was able to use biomorphic transformation to make the connection between the human figure and Nature” (Henry Moore Work–Theory–Impact, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2008, pp. 184 and 186).
For Moore, the idea of the Mother and Child occupies a place at very heart of creation, in both the physical, natural world, and within the creative arts of humankind. It is moreover for him a metaphor for work of the work of sculptor. “Moore continuously found new ways of exploring the theme so that the imagery could take on meaning beyond the aesthetics of its form,” Gelburd has explained. “The development of the mother and child imagery reveals that 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” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1987, p. 37). Moore’s obsessive preoccupation with the theme of the Mother and Child lies at the very heart of the meaning and practice of his art. "I was conditioned, as it were to see [the Mother and Child] in everything,” Moore declared. “I suppose it could be explained as a 'Mother' complex” (quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., op. cit., 2002, p. 213).
[A] Henry Moore, Madonna and Child, 1943-1944. Church of St. Matthew, Northampton.
[B] Henry Moore, Mother and Child: Hood, 1983. St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on loan from the Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham.
[C] Henry Moore, Upright Internal/External Form, 1953-1954. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
[D] Henry Moore, Mother and Child: Block Seat, 1983-1984. Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham.