A Survey of Terrible Parents in Art History


We know that some kids just aren’t alright, but this time, we’re focusing on their folks. From ghastly, painterly scenes of classic filicide to controversial contemporary photographers who use their children as muses, here are a few examples of questionable, problematic and plain terrible parenting through the ages. Are we being too harsh? Did we miss someone? Feel free to tsk-tsk in the comment section.

Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible And His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581, 1885. Courtesy of Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Russia’s Czar Ivan IV Vasilyevich or Ivan the Terrible was very apt at the whole ruling and conquering thing, devout, intelligent, but he was also prone to episodic bouts of mental illness and violent rage. This classic painting shows a mad-eyed Ivan cradling his son and heir after he beat him to death with a pointed staff on the head. His son had confronted him about an earlier outburst over his daughter-in-law’s immodest clothing, whom Ivan beat and caused to miscarry. Hence, “The Terrible.”

Richard Kern, You Killed Me First, 1985

Richard Kern’s video art piece stars the pin-up girl of the ’80s transgressive movement, Lung Leg (yes, that one). It’s all about a misunderstood teenager, whose religious parents resent and shun her in favor of her sorority perfect sister. What did she do when her parents disapprove of everything she does, wears, listens to, dates, etc.? What the title says.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, c. 1819–1823. Oil mural transferred to canvas, 143cm x 81cm. Courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid

One of Goya’s “Black Paintings” that he painted directly onto the wall of his house and never meant to display publicly, this one’s a horrifying vision of the Greek myth of Titan Cronus, who, fearing competition, devoured each of his sons at birth. Here is the Peter Paul Rubens version. Grisly!

Sally Mann, Immediate Family, 1992

This one’s debatable. The majority of Sally Mann’s irrefutably compelling work features her three young children, with some relatively bothersome precocious bits. It was the 1992 “suicide tableaux” series featuring the kids, nude and battered, that caused the most stir. If your little boy’s nose is bleeding and you run to grab the large-format camera for a long portrait session, does that make you a bad mother or a brilliant artist?

< Photo credit: Irina Ionesco The case of photographer Irina Ionesco and her very young child/muse Eva in the '70s is less debatable. Since Eva was five, her mother took hundreds of portraits, which we probably can't show here. Aesthetically, these were also quite compelling, but a lot more disturbing than Mann's, featuring Eva, fully nude, suggestively posed and startlingly precocious. At as Eva was making her mother's career, Irina allegedly grew distant and removed. Eva appeared in the Italian edition of Playboy at 11. She has sued Irina for emotional distress three times and the trial’s still going on in France.

Miranda July, Eleven Heavy Things, 2009

Consider this an opinionated pick. While Miranda July’s public sculpture series of Eleven Heavy Things are all characteristically full of warmth and whimsy, for the sake of argument: Take this pedestal literately. That’s a lot to live up to. Projecting much? Unrealistic, idealistic pressure much? You better be very, very clever, girl!

Gabriel von Max, The Child-murderer, 1877

OK, OK. Maybe that’s too harsh. Here’s another classic painting of filicide, creepy as can be, and from the looks of it, indisputable bad parenting.

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751. Engraving. Courtesy of Wikipedia

This is just 1/2 of a moralizing diptych. The infanticide here is the result of gin — an evil foreign spirit that causes chaos, addiction, starvation, suicide and parental carelessness, as depicted. The other 1/2 is called Beer Street, a celebration of chugging England’s own booze, free of any such problems and full of merriment — clearly, the drinking choice of a superior hard drinking parent.

Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley, Heidi, 1992. Film still

This collaborative video work from Paul McCarthy and the late Mike Kelley was shot with full-size rubber figures and body doubles on a set fabricated at the Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna. Paul McCarthy describes it so: “The intention was to create convoluted associations between Heidi, the purity myth in America and Europe and the media view of family life, horror movies and ornamentation — the grandfather, Heidi and Peter, a rural family. Grandfather is abusive and senile. Peter is retarded. Heidi is Madonna and the sick girl is a vision.” The result is innovative and potent, but for some it’s something to be endured rather than watched. There’s some pretty icky stuff going on with the grocery products and rubber props.

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603. Oil on canvas

We all know this one. Abraham was going to do it, too. God told him to! Oh, well, so much to say… that’s better said by Louis CK: