The Cradle, 1950
John Biggers, American, 1924–2001
Conté crayon on paper board
Sheet: 22 3/8 × 21 1/2 in. (56.9 × 54.6 cm)
25th Annual Houston Artists Exhibition, museum purchase prize, 1950

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Understanding Contrasting Situations: Force and Work

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.


This Curriculum Connection also includes Paul Manship, Hercules Upholding the Heavens.

Curriculum Objectives

  • The student will be able to use the artwork to allow the student to discover how to contrast situations.
  • Contrast situations where work is done with different amounts of force to situations where no work is done such as moving a box with a ramp and without a ramp, or standing still.









Connecting to the Work of Art

The Cradle expresses sympathy for the oppressed and destitute. John Biggers considered himself primarily a draftsman, and here he demonstrates his fine mastery of drawing. Central to the work is the depiction of the mother, who cradles her children within her arms. This conveys the immense responsibility motherhood brings, as the woman shields her three young children from the impending darkness. Although the mother appears to be in despair as she holds her children close to her breast, her thin, elongated arms reveal sturdy, worked muscles suggestive of a dogged strength and resilience.

Drawn only in crayon, the background is composed of heavy crosshatching, a technique in which varying densities of parallel lines intersect one another to create areas of darkness. This method allowed Biggers to heighten the emotional energy of the work through the expressive background. His dramatic play of light and shadow, with black streaming from behind the figures, intensifies the mood of solitude and reflection. The curved lines of the children echo the curled body of the mother, who envelops her offspring.

Form, rather than detail, is prioritized. By rendering his forms stripped of detail, the artist draws attention to the essence of his figures, reinforcing the pensive solitude and peaceful stillness of this work. The mother and children speak to a universal theme of a mother-child relationship. Composed during a time of difficult transition for the artist, he found an outlet for his frustration in drawing: “I began to work with crayon. My mood must have dictated my sketching the rough contours of a primordial mother image. I thought, ‘A mountain of refuge, ravaged by time, yet remaining both strong and tender—protecting life—poised to absorb hostility without flinching.’” The Cradle exemplifies Biggers’ intrigue with motherhood, especially with regard to African-American women. He not only saw motherhood as an enormous responsibility, but he also considered women to be at the heart of African and African-American culture.

Throughout his career, Biggers was strongly influenced by African and African-American culture and traditions. He believed art was not only an individual expression of talent, but also, for him, “a responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people.” Biggers promoted this philosophy in both his work and his teaching.

Biggers, who moved to Houston in 1949 after receiving a position to establish an art department at Texas Southern University, presented this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s annual exhibition of Texas artists, where it won first prize.


  • How would you describe the relationship between the women and the children? Using elements from the work of art, how do you know that this is a mother and her children?
  • What effect does the lack of separation between the bodies of the children and the mother add to the artwork?
  • Notice the background of heavy crosshatching, a technique in which varying densities of parallel lines intersect one another to create areas of darkness. How does the use of this technique heighten the emotional energy of the work?
  • Describe the use of light and shadow in this drawing. How does the dramatic lighting add to the mood of solitude and reflection?
  • Why do you think the artist stripped the details from the figures?
  • Notice how the artist chose to not portray the faces of the figures. How would this work be different if viewers could see their faces? What do you think their expressions would be like?


  • While the lack of details helps the viewer to focus on the figures, how does it also add a sense of universality to the drawing?
  • The artist stated that he created this drawing during a frustrating time in his life. Do you notice a tone of frustration and hopelessness infused in this work of art?
  • The title of this work is The Cradle. How does the title and the embracing figure of the women create a tone of protection? In contrast, how does the darkness that surrounds the figures create an impending sense of doom and despair?
  • While the artist did not include many details, he drew the mother’s arms as sturdy and muscular. What can we infer about the nature of the woman due to this additional detail?
  • Despite the underlying tone of darkness and the despair, how does the figure of the women depict strength and resilience?

Connecting to the Classroom

Have the two work of arts side-by-side in a PowerPoint with a black background. It is to allow the students opportunity to practice contrasting situations before looking for it in physics.

Probe the students’ minds by asking them what words come to mind when they think of contrast. Accept all answers but work the conversation to eventually discover that you are looking at the differences.

How are these two works of art different? Have the students write down three ways.

For example:

  • One is a painting, one is a sculpture
  • One woman is holding children. The man is balancing a sphere which could symbolize the world
  • One-man woman seems to be skin and bones. The man is very muscular.
  • Their stances are very different: the woman with the children has her chest unexposed because they are buried in it, her shoulders are rolled forward; the man with the world on his shoulder has his chest open, his shoulders are rolled back.

It is important to expose that contrasting two things is finding the differences. The images have a lot of similarities, but that isn’t what we are looking for here. When students enter similarities into the discussion, accept them, but then remind them that we are looking for differences.

Extension: After teaching the lesson about work, you can return to these images and ask, “Are the people doing work?"


Show this work of art alongside Paul Manship's sculpture, Hercules Upholding the Heavens.

If the two works of art came to life, how could they exhibit work? 

Work is a measure of the amount of energy that it would take to move an object a specified distance. When a force acts upon an object to cause a displacement of that object, work was done upon that object. For example, if you carry your desk from one side of the classroom to another, you have done work on that desk. 

There are three key ingredients to work: force, displacement, and cause. In order for a force to have done work on the object, there must be a displacement (movement) caused by the force. The total amount of work done on the object is proportional to both the magnitude of the force exerted on the object, and to the total distance that the object has moved. This relationship is expressed via the formula Work=Force*Distance. 

To explore the difference between force and work, show the Cradle and Hercules Upholding the Heavens side-by side. Use the two artworks to play a game: "Is it work?" 

Ask the students whether the following situations exhibit work. Students respond by holding a thumbs up for "yes" or a thumbs down for "no". After polling the room, ask students to explain why they answered "yes" or "no". 

  • Hercules picks up the world and lifts it above his head. [yes; he applies force which caused the world to move]
  • Hercules stands, holding the world above his head. [no; the world does not move]
  • The woman is holding the children. [no; the children do not move]
  • Hercules swings his club. [yes; he applies force to his club, which causes it to move]
  • Hercules swings his club, hits you, and you fall down. [yes; he does work on the club, and the club does work on you!]
  • The woman places the child in its bed. [yes; she applies a force to the child to move it to the bed]

Have students develop their own situations, and continue the game with their ideas. 

Subject Matter Connection

When students start making connections between things that they know and things that they are learning, they attain the information better. There is some connection between everything in the world; these are the relationships we want our students to begin to realize and understand. Our students analyze concepts or material items to some degree often; we want them to realize what they are doing and how to deepen the ability.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider