Take your Son, Sir1851-1856 by Ford Madox Brown

Take Your Son, Sir! (1851-6) is an unfinished painting by Ford Madox Brown which depicts a woman showing her newborn son to its father. She is offering her baby towards the viewer of the painting, who is implicitly equated with the father - seen in the mirror behind, opening his arms to receive the baby. The mirror also forms a halo behind the mother's head, and the pattern on the wallpaper suggests the starry heavens. Brown's principal influence was Jan van Eyck's painting the Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, recently acquired by the National Gallery. The mirror resembles the circular mirror in van Eyck's painting, which reflects an image of the artist looking at the couple in the image.

The woman is wearing crinolines, which expand to cover the whole of the lower part of the painting. Brown has left this part incomplete, roughly squaring up and sketching the dress in outline. The title is written on the unfinished dress, underneath the child at the right.

Brown's own wife was pregnant whilst he was painting this picture and she gave birth to a son which they named Arthur. Arthur then died at just 10 months old and it is considered Brown was unable to complete the painting through grief for his son, so he abandoned it.


There are two principal interpretations of the picture. Most critics see it as an image of a wife offering the child to her husband, an interpretation supported by the sacred symbolism and by the fact that Brown depicted his own wife and their new son. Some commentators, however, interpret it as more confrontational image, in which an abandoned mistress presents her baby to its father.

The art historian Marcia Pointon has argued that the painting is deliberately paradoxical, playing on the conflict between new life and death. She suggests that the portrayal of the baby is influenced by medical images of fetuses surrounded by viscera within the body of woman, and that the woman's glazed, white and emaciated features suggest death.

...The Brown painting remains unfinished but the detail which has been given the most attention is the mirror. Brown can be seen holding his hands out to receive the beautifully drawn baby, in the middle-class interior which is reflected. Maybe Brown was imagining the narrative beyond that which van Eyck painted, maybe even the arrival of the imagined Arnolfini baby? Or perhaps Brown was examining the problem of 19th century illegitimacy –something he was no stranger to, with his own (at that time) mistress being the model for the worn-out mother and third son, Arthur, as the baby.

This enigmatic picture shows the artist’s second wife, Emma, and their new-born son, Arthur Gabriel. The pose is reminiscent of a traditional Madonna and child but the mother’s strained expression suggests that this is not a conventional celebration of marriage and motherhood. The domestic details of the room are indicative of a contemporary-life subject in which the woman holds out the baby to her husband reflected in the mirror. Ford Madox Brown began the composition in 1851 and, although he worked on it over a number of years, abandoned it following the death of Arthur in 1857.
Gallery label, November 2016
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