‘The 'Mother and Child' is one of my two or three obsessions, one of my inexhaustible subjects … 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, quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 213).
Moore sculpted his first Mother and Child while at art school in 1922 and the subject remained a boundless well of inspiration throughout his career. Moore’s own life experiences weighed heavily to guide his everchanging treatment of the theme. In 1946 Moore’s daughter Mary was born and in the same year Moore lost his mother. As Moore explains, ‘of course, an artist uses experiences he’s had in life. Such an experience in my life was the birth of my daughter Mary, which re-invoked in my sculpture my Mother and Child theme. A new experience can bring to the surface something deep in one’s mind’ (H. Moore, quoted in J. Hedgecoe (ed.), Henry Spencer Moore, London, 1968, p. 173). Moore demonstrated a varied and multi-layered contemplation of the subject, he noted in one of his sketchbooks: ‘Mother: protection, resignation/ Child: fear, clinging’ – (Henry Moore, Mother and Child studies 1926 in Notebook No. 6, Henry Moore Foundation, quoted in C. Stephens (ed.), Henry Moore, London, 2010, p. 117.) The relationship offers the opportunity to explore the full potential of human emotion, love and tenderness, but also sacrifice and frustration, and in this small-scale sculpture a different angle might prompt the viewer to consider a range of contrasting emotions.
Moore’s ability to create work which embodies the full spectrum of human nature elicited the continued celebration of his Mother and Child theme, resulting in commissions such as the famous Madonna and Child for the Church of St. Matthew in Northampton, 1943. After the War his Mother and Child motif took on even greater significance as an image of hope and renewal. As Moore expressed ‘I've not been free to give the majority (and proper proportion) of my time to my real work of sculpture. But that's no longer so’ (H. Moore, quoted in H. J. Seldis, Henry Moore in America, London, 1973, p. 65). During the war, Moore worked as a war artist creating his famous Shelter Drawings (1940-41). In the darkness, Moore witnessed the human instinct to protect and comfort, and the tenderness between the figures huddled together suffuses his mother and child pieces. In the wake of the Second World War, Moore and his work became a symbol of optimism for post-war Britain and the world. In 1956 Moore received a commission for a sculpture from UNESCO and while considering the subject for his sculpture he created several maquettes for a bronze mother with her child, exploring the playful relationship between the pair. Mother and Child: Crossed Feet is a beautiful example of the pieces produced during this period of experimentation. Unlike Moore’s earlier Mother and Child sculptures the two figures are totally distinct entities; Moore uses the space between the figures as a medium as much as the bronze, evoking his larger, more abstract works.
The Mother and Child theme is closely linked to Moore’s inner and outer-form motif, where a smaller form is protected by the larger, while the outer piece bends to cradle or envelope the inner. Henry Moore explains that ‘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’, inclining her head ‘in concerned regard for the vulnerability and needs of her new-born offspring’ (H. Moore, quoted in A. Wilkinson (ed.), op. cit., 2002, p. 214). This is expressed beautifully in Mother and Child: Crossed Feet. The mother holds her arm at a stiff right angle, this uncharacteristically harsh line emphasising the role of mother as the powerful protector, while the child appears enveloped in the tender yet forceful hold of mother. The piece is kinetic, it holds the possibility of movement, the mother and child both reaching, and as the child is unbalanced the mother is even more protective: as always, Moore tells a story. Furthermore, while primarily figurative, there is some abstraction in the mother’s face reminiscent of the famous Mother and Child of 1953, emphasising the difference between the mother and child, the mother removed while still poised to catch the child if it wobbles upon her knee.
Moore conjures both the human form and the natural world in a single piece, here the mother’s skirt is reminiscent of a shell or the flow of water, and the vitality of humanity and nature are both evoked, the two forces intertwined. The draped skirt became a motif for Moore’s women in the 1940s, famously portrayed in King and Queen (1952-53, cast 1957). The mother’s angular form, long arms and upright body further this resemblance. While this creates a rather austere figure, any stiffness is diffused when the sculpture is viewed in the round, the view from behind resemble two figures dancing together, while the curve of the back is reminiscent of Moore’s dramatic Knife Edge Standing Figure. The crossed feet add a touch of playfulness and a casual quality, and simultaneously completes the graceful curve of the skirt creating a pleasing arc, a miniature example of Moore’s distinctive style. In all of Moore’s pieces there exists what he called ‘vivality’ or aliveness, coupled with the mother and child motif, his work has an eternal universality. As Moore, himself expressed, ‘It has been a universal theme from the beginning of time. Some of the earliest sculptures we’ve found from the Neolithic age are of a mother and child. I discovered when drawing I could turn every little scribble, blot or smudge into a Mother and Child’ (H. Moore, quoted in H. Moore and J. Hedgecoe, Henry Moore, New York, 1968, p. 61).