Empowering Women: The Female Figure in Art

Art Ambassador Highlight: Jill E. Meyer

Portrait of mother and child in ornate gold square frame with circular opening. The subject’s light pink and ivory skin pops on the dark background. They embrace, chest and cheeks pressed together looking at viewer.
Benjamin West (1738-1820), American, Portrait of Mrs. Benjamin West and Her Son, Raphael, ca. 1770, oil on canvas, purchased with funds from the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation Museum, UMFA1982.007.003

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Hello, my name is Jill Meyer. I am delighted to serve as a volunteer Art Ambassador at the UMFA.

My tour is titled Empowering Women: The Female Figure in Art.

In my tour, we will look at six images of women portrayed by several different cultures and time periods, questioning: Are these women empowered? 

And how can viewing these female figures leave us feeling empowered--as women and men--about the roles, purpose, meaning, and impact that women create in our world?

To begin, let's break this down. How can we understand, what exactly IS empowerment?

Empowerment can be seen as four basic elements: meaning, competence, self-determination, and impact. Let’s keep these four elements in mind as we look at different images of women.

The image we will see today is….

A Portrait of a Mother and a Child (Mrs. Benjamin West and Her Son Raphael)

By Benjamin West, dating from ca 1770.

What is the first thing you notice about this painting?

I see a beautiful, loving, intimate portrait of a mother and child, something we can all identify with, either as having been a child with a mother figure, or as a mother or parent ourselves. Motherhood certainly has universal and empowering impact.

The two figures are wrapped in a very warm and loving embrace. You can feel the affection and care they seem to have for each other. To me, that love feels very empowering, and full of meaning.

Do you notice the round frame and corresponding round composition the artist has positioned the figures within? Does it seem to draw them closer in their embrace, as they sit with rosy cheek held to cheek?

Who are these figures?


The title tells us this is “Mrs. Benjamin West and Her Son Raphael” but here we don’t get to know the name of the mother herself. We know her only as the wife of the artist. To me, that feels not very self-determined or empowering at all!

Benjamin married Elizabeth Shewell in 1765. The couple became engaged in Philadelphia before Benjamin went to study art in Europe. They married after he found success in his career in England. It would be interesting to research what we could find out about Elizabeth as a person herself, separate from her husband’s role as an artist known as “the father of American painting.”

Self-taught and rising from humble Quaker beginnings to become the official painter to King George III in England, Benjamin painted many portraits of the royal family but here he turns his attention to his own family, his wife and oldest son.

Shown enjoying her role as a mother, do you think this figure of Elizabeth is an empowered woman?

As a college student, my younger self would most likely not have seen this woman as empowered. But now that I am older, and have raised my children to be adults, I see Elizabeth Shewell West as a very empowering image of the powerful love a mother has for her child, and the equally powerful love of a father-artist looking admiringly at this mother and child unit.

I love the idea of knowing works of art over time and returning to look at them. How about you?