Mary Cassatt's paintings of mothers and children revolutionized the genre at the end of the nineteenth century. Cassatt employed formal devices such as pattern and color to explore the sensual nature of the mother-child relationship, and in doing so rejected the overly sentimental approach to the subject taken by many of her contemporaries.
Mary Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a wealthy banker. As a child, she spent five years traveling in Europe with her family, living in Paris, Heidelberg, and Darmstadt. At sixteen, she began her art studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After this initial training, Cassatt traveled to Paris where she studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin, Paul Soyer, and Thomas Couture. From 1870 to 1874 she also studied and painted in Italy and Spain. By 1877 Cassatt had settled definitively in Paris, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. Because of her innovative manipulations of space, deft painting technique, and modern subject matter, Cassatt was asked to exhibit with the Impressionists. At the beginning of her career, Cassatt created paintings of independent, modern women much like herself. She also painted several perceptive representations of children, such as Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). However, by 1885 Cassatt was painting scenes of mothers and children almost exclusively. Art historians have speculated that Cassatt turned to this theme because of a changing social climate, which encouraged women to paint what were considered appropriate feminine subjects. However, her paintings of mothers and children made Cassatt famous. She was no doubt eager to capitalize on this success by recreating similar compositions. At the same time, Cassatt's most penetrating depictions of mothers and children were contemporaneous with new theories about CHILD PSYCHOLOGY and the relationship between mother and child.
Cassatt's best-known painting of maternal devotion is The Bath (1891), which depicts a mother washing her child's foot. Absorbed in this intimate moment, neither mother nor child are aware of the viewer's presence. Cassatt uses an elevated vantage point, dramatic cropping, and contrasting patterns to accentuate the physical closeness of mother and child, as well as to draw attention to the child's naked flesh. In other pictures, such as Maternal Caress (1896), bold strokes of paint knit together the child's tiny hand and the mother's cheek, suggesting the organic unity of the two figures. Cassatt also created a series of technically innovative color prints, showing women bathing, dressing, and playing with children. In paintings such as Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) (c. 1899), Cassatt positioned her models in the conventional pose of the Madonna and Child, the mirror behind the figures standing in as a halo. Modern motherhood is therefore equated with divinity in Cassatt's late works.
After falling out of fashion, Cassatt's work was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1970s. This initial scholarly reappraisal of Cassatt has led to her increased visibility in museum displays and art history textbooks. Cassatt's images of mothers and children are particularly popular with the general public and are reproduced on a variety of items from posters and note cards to tea towels and tote bags. A 1998 retrospective of Cassatt's work was one of the most well-attended museum exhibitions of that year.
Mathews, Nancy Mowll. 1987. Mary Cassatt. New York: Abrams, in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Nochlin, Linda. 1999. "Mary Cassatt's Modernity." In Representing Women, pp. 180–215. London: Thames and Hudson.
Pollock, Griselda. 1980. Mary Cassatt. London: Jupiter Books.
A. CASSANDRA ALBINSON