British sculptor Henry Moore captures the love between ‘Madonna and Child’

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

In celebration of Henry Moore’s birthday on July 30, we hope that you enjoy this sculpture from the museum’s collection.

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Henry Moore (British, 1898–1986)

Madonna and Child, 1943–45
5 ¼ “H x 2 ½ “W x 2 1/2 “D
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Rosalyn E. Shecter (Mrs. Louis), A2928,94.0402

In Madonna and Child, Henry Moore captured the intimate bond between the Virgin Mary and Christ. Building upon a long tradition in Christian art, the artist reinterpreted this renowned subject by employing abstracted, thick drapery that clings to each figure’s body melding with the chair into a cohesive whole. Clutching Jesus with both arms raised in a dignified pose, we are invited to imagine the two figures’ facial expressions and gaze, which are merely suggested by indentations on their heads and varied surface textures. By contrast, other bodily features are more clearly rendered, most notably the Virgin’s elbows, legs, and knees.

This work was cast from a terracotta model made in 1943 for the Hornton stone Madonna and Child (1943–44) at the Parish Church of St. Matthew’s, Northampton (see below), Moore’s first religious sculpture. Having seen Moore’s “Shelter Drawings,” (a series that depicts Londoners seeking refuge in the city’s Underground during World War II), the Rev. Walter Hussey commissioned the sculpture to commemorate the half-centenary of St. Matthew’s, giving the artist his first opportunity to carve in stone since the War began.

The museum’s small bronze originated from a total of twelve clay maquettes that Moore made for this project. Though not selected to be scaled up for the final sculpture (see other model below), the Hagerstown study was later cast in bronze along with five of the other maquettes. In contrast to Moore’s initial model, he shifted Christ from the Virgin’s arms to her lap in the alternate maquette and final version. Here, Mary places her hands on Jesus’ shoulders in a more informal, relaxed pose. A theme that held special significance for Moore, he was apprehensive about the commission, insisting upon months of preparatory drawings and clay models before proceeding with the final work. Described by the artist as “one of the most difficult and heart-searching sculptures that I ever tried to do,” he provided additional insights about creating Madonna and Child:

I began thinking of the ‘Madonna and Child’ for St Matthew’s considering in what ways a ‘Madonna and Child’ differs from a carving of just a ‘Mother and Child’ – that is, by considering how in my opinion religious art differs from secular art. It’s not easy to describe in words what this difference is, except by saying in general terms that the ‘Madonna and Child’ should have an austerity and a nobility, and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday ‘Mother and Child’ idea. Of the sketches and models I have done, the one chosen has I think a quiet dignity and gentleness. I have tried to give a sense of complete easiness and repose, as though the Madonna could stay in that position for ever (as being in stone, she will have to do) (cited in David Sylvester (ed.), Henry Moore, Complete Sculpture 1921-48, Vol. 1, London: Lund Humphries, 1988, 25).

Moore is often considered one of the most important modern British sculptors. He focused on the human figure, in particular the theme of mother and child, especially after the death of his mother and birth of his daughter. Famous for his monumental bronze and stone works, Moore derived inspiration from non-Western sculpture, including African and Pre-Columbian examples. In addition, he was influenced by Surrealism, Cubism and other progressive art movements, specifically the work of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Alberto Giacometti (1901–66). Moore was also a skilled printmaker and designed textiles and tapestries.

During World War I, he served in the British army and received a grant for ex-servicemen in 1919, when he enrolled as the first sculpture student at the Leeds School of Art.  There, Moore began a life-long association with Barbara Hepworth (1903–75), who became one of England’s most famous women sculptors. Moore studied and later taught at the Royal College of Art. In the 1930s, he joined the faculty of the Chelsea School of Art, and became chair of the Department of Sculpture. In 1946, Moore traveled to America, where the Museum of Modern Art held a large exhibition of his work. Two years later, he won the International Sculpture Prize at the Venice Biennale. In subsequent decades, the artist received numerous large-scale public commissions. Towards the end of his life, Moore established the Henry Moore Foundation (Much Hadham, UK), which supports fine-art education through the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and works to preserve his sculptures.

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Henry Moore
Madonna and Child, 1943–44
Hornton stone
Collection of Parish Church of St. Matthew’s, Northampton, UK


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Henry Moore
Madonna and Child, 1943–44
(maquette for large-scale work at Parish Church of St. Matthew’s)
Collection of Salisbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. William P. Young, Jr