This is a slight departure from the norm for me, dear reader—I like to show you finished products, but Ford Madox Brown’s somewhat disturbing painting Take Your Son, Sir remained unfinished upon his death in 1893.
Now, one of the things that makes it disturbing isn’t quite fair to count, I think. Lots of people writing about Take Your Son cite (reasonably enough) the main figure’s bizarre, pasty-but-flushed complexion. That conveniently forgets, however, that the work is unfinished.
Certainly as it stands her face is horrifying. There’s what looks to be a lead-white base coat. On top of that is a startling purplish-red: perhaps fuchsin, one of the new synthetic pigments Brown was so particularly fond of (as described in this article by Angela Thirlwell).
The result is a ghastly, bloodless-but-not-bloodless pallor.
Yet those colors show up in the legs, feet, and hands of the infant—and the hands of the mother, too—but there they’ve been painted over to give the skin a translucent fleshiness. It’s easy to imagine Brown finishing her face the same way.
Now for the anecdotal content. As the Tate neatly summarizes it, “The pose is reminiscent of a traditional Madonna and child but the mother’s strained expression suggests that this is not a celebration of marriage and motherhood. The domestic details of the room are indicative of a contemporary-life subject in which this could be a kept woman offering her illegitimate child to its father, the figure reflected in the mirror.”
Especially remembering his Modernist novelist grandson, Ford Madox Ford (master of the unreliable narrator), it’s kind of delicious that Take Your Son leaves its meaning a little bit ambiguous.