Hidden Mother

Hidden Mother is Philadelphia based artists Sarah Detweiler‘s project

The Nightowl (2021), oil on canvas with embroidery thread and yarn in a wood frame, 28 x 22 inches. All images are courtesy of Paradigm Gallery

The long exposure times required by nineteenth-century photography were not suitable for newborns and fidgety toddlers, a problem that many mothers attempted to solve by cloaking themselves in fabric and hiding behind furniture. As a result, while capturing an endearing stage of life, those Victorian-era portraits are often spectral and slightly unsettling, shadowed by phantom limbs and textile silhouettes that closely resemble an inanimate backdrop despite their lively features.

This desire for concealment pervades the multi-media works of Philadelphia-based artist Sarah Detweiler, whose ongoing series Hidden Mother is on display at Paradigm Gallery through May 22. Detweiler’s portraits, depicted without children, subvert the original photographs by drawing attention to figures that would otherwise be relegated to the background. Fabrics created with a combination of oil, acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and embroidered elements challenge traditional notions of femininity and motherhood by literally cloaking the women in domestic materials.

Because the artist has a personal relationship with each subject, the textiles, motifs, and colors all evoke specific aspects of their personalities and unique experiences, resulting in idiosyncratic portraits held together only by their shared identity. According to a series statement, Detweiler “preserves a universal relatability—the woman under the shroud could be you, your mother, your friend.”

If you can’t make it to Philadelphia, you can take a virtual tour of the sold-out exhibition, and you can learn more about the series by watching this Q&A with Detweiler, which is available as a limited-edition print set on Paradigm’s website. More of the artist’s process, including some of the original photographs that inspired the portraits shown here, can be found on Instagram.