A Mother I, 1883
etching and aquatint on japan paper
62.9 x 45.7 cm; plate: 46 x 32 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 23131.5)
These three etchings are based on legal proceedings published in a Berlin newspaper in 1881: "A family impoverished by the [stock market] crash. The man, who has become a drunk, abuses his wife and child. She, in despair, jumps with the child into the water. The child drowns, she is saved, revived, and charged in court with murder and attempted suicide-acquitted." In the first scene, two women prevent a man from beating his wife. Cornered, she looks away in stoic dejection, her only defensive gesture being to protect her child. Following Émile Zola's social theory, the overbearing presence of the tenement houses suggests how people are affected by their environment. The second print, set on Berlin's Spree River, is divided into two horizontal registers. Below, stillness and solemnity permeate the scene as the boy's corpse is laid out on the dock. Above, a policeman escorts the passive mother through an agitated and curious crowd. The final scene depicts her trial. A lawyer stands to address the judges, who consider the circumstances of her case. The mother's skull-like face implies that society's understanding of her plight has come too late.