Henry Moore’s Family Group
represents the zenith of sustained and involved investigation by the artist into the motif of parenthood. Historically significant and representative of a seminal moment in Moore's artistic development, the sculpture is nonetheless pertinently personal and intimate. Family Group
is a testament to Moore’s unparalleled achievements in sculpture: "Sculpture for me must have life in it, vitality... It must have a feeling for organic form, a certain pathos and warmth" (Henry Moore quoted in Ross Erikson, Dialogues on Art
, Santa Barbara, 1980, p. 195).
The mother and child was one of the two central motifs, along with the reclining woman, that obsessed Moore for the duration of his life. This image of the primal maternal bond was redolent with religious connotations of the Madonna and Child, but its appeal was also secular and universal. Moore looked to ancient art, Mexican and Sumerian art, as well as to classical antiquity, for inspiration in his earliest stone carvings in the 1920s. The seventh of eight children of a coalminer and a coalminer’s daughter, Moore was born in the industrial town of Castleford in Yorkshire. While his father was strict, industrious and ambitious, his mother was "feminine, womanly, motherly… She was to me the absolute stability, the whole thing in life that one knew was there for one’s protection" (Henry Moore quoted in Norbert Lynton, "The Humanity of Moore," in Henry Moore: The Human Dimension
, London, 1991, p. 21).
Moore explored the mother and child motif in more and less direct guises throughout the 1920s and 1930s: from babies suckled and cradled by their mothers to more abstract interpretations of two separate but related forms or hollows with distinct elements held within an interior space. During World War II, Moore was commissioned to carve a stone Madonna and Child for St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton but, even more pertinently to the increased complexity of the family group motif, as an Official War Artist, Moore produced numerous drawings of civilians huddled in underground stations, sheltering from the bombing raids over London. These figures, clinging together for comfort and warmth, and draped in blankets, held fundamental significance for Moore’s creative development of the family group scene and demonstrated the political bearing of his universal motifs. The artist described how "the scenes of the shelter world, static figures asleep—reclining figures—remained vivid in my mind. I felt somehow drawn to it all. Here was something I couldn’t help doing" (Henry Moore quoted in James Johnson Sweeney, "Henry Moore," in Partisan Review
, New York, 1947, p. 184).
Turning again to the family group immediately after the war was a creative progression both political and personal. Seen in the light of the post-war period, the family became a symbol of hope and love, of the intransigence of human bonds of support, compassion and care, and of turning to domestic and inner life in the face of immense and universal experiences of trauma. The family group also had a particularly personal resonance as Moore and his wife, Irina, had their first and only child, Mary, in 1946 after many years of marriage. She was a much-loved and longed for addition to the family, and thus the household grouping in Moore’s sculpture took on a new and even greater significance after this time.