Mary Cassatt’s Mother and Child works. Part 1

Mary Cassatt 1844 - 1926
Mary Cassatt
1844 – 1926

Having just become a grandfather for the third time last week I thought I would look at a painter who depicted mother and child in such a loving way and with breathtaking brilliance.  My featured artist is the American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt. In my next two blogs I will look at her paintings which feature children or mothers and their children. Despite never having married or having any children herself, she managed to capture, in her works of art, the essence of a mother-child relationship.  These paintings were not sugary idealisations of mother and child but a realistic and natural representation of that great love between the two.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt (1878)

My first offering is just of a child and it is her oil painting entitled Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.  She completed it in 1878 whilst living in Paris and submitted it for inclusion at that year’s Exposition Universelle, but it was rejected.  She was furious at the rejection as she had been confident about its acceptance having already had some of her works accepted at earlier Salons.  She was scathing of the three-man judging panel and later, in a letter to Ambroise Vollard, the Parisian art dealer, she wrote of her annoyance:

“…It was the portrait of a friend of M. Degas. I had done the child in the armchair and he found it good and advised me on the background and he even worked on it. I sent it to the American section of the big exposition [of 1878], they refused it … I was furious, all the more so since he had worked on it. At that time this appeared new and the jury consisted of three people of which one was a pharmacist ! …”

This rebuff by a jury system, which of course was similar to the way in which artists had paintings accepted for the Salon exhibitions, annoyed Cassatt and this is probably why she became friends with the Impressionist artists (although she and her friend Degas always referred to the group as the Independents) who railed against the Académie and its jurist system of accepting works into the annual Salon exhibitions.  The failure to have the work accepted by the jury was not only a rejection of Cassatt’s efforts but, unknown to them, it was a snub to Degas himself, who had helped her with the painting’s background and the light source we see from the rear windows. He had also supplied the model who was the daughter of one of his friends. It is thought that she exhibited the work two years later, in 1879, at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, as Portrait de petite fille.

Paris at the time was revelling in the arrival of all things Japanese.  Woodcut prints, fans, clothing and silk screens were all in great demand and Cassatt was an avid collector of these prints.  In this painting we can see the Japanese influence in the way Cassatt has close-cropped all four sides of the work even though it meant having parts of each of the four colourful blue arm cut out of the painting.  The chairs are arranged in such a way that they form a circle around an oddly dull-grey coloured floor.  The upper part of the windows in the background is also cropped.  The only things to avoid this cropping technique are the little girl and her pet griffon dog, which lies lethargically on the adjacent armchair.  I like the way the child is depicted.  Although the setting and the furniture have been carefully “stage-managed”, the girl herself seems to be less “posed”.  The only manipulation of the child would be the clothes she wears which would probably not be her ordinary daytime attire.  Whilst modelling for this painting, she has been made to wear fashionable clothes with a tartan shawl which match her ankle socks.  Her hair has been well groomed and now has a bow in it.  Her shoes are highly polished and the light catches their metallic buckles.  However, it is a realistic pose.  The young girl is slumped in the armchair and she exudes an uninterested demeanour obviously tired of posing for the artist.  She is almost sullen in her deportment as she stares into space.  How many times have we witnessed children slumped in an armchair or a couch complaining they have nothing to do and are bored?   How many times have we looked upon our children in a similar pose and told them to “sit up and look lively”?  This is such a life-like pose and is testament to Cassatt’s observational powers.  The painting is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)
Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt (1897)

My next offering is Mary Cassatt’s 1897 work entitled Breakfast in Bed which is now housed at the Huntington Library and Art Collection, San Marino, California.  In this oil painting we see a young mother lying in bed, with her arms wrapped around her young child. Is the embrace a sign of motherly love?  Maybe the embrace is to hold her secure from falling off the bed but I am going to hazard a guess that the mother just wants to hold the child still so she does not run off and cause some mischief !   It is interesting to look closely at the faces of the mother and child.  Their expressions are so different.  The mother lies back with her head on the pillow and gives her child a sideways glance.  She looks tired almost as if she is unable to lift her head from the pillow.  It could be that she has returned to bed after making herself a cup of tea and brought her child with her so she doesn’t have to wonder what the lively toddler is up to when out of sight.  The mother’s tired expression tells us that she would just like another thirty minutes of peace and quiet but looking at the child’s expression it will be an unfulfilled aspiration.  In contrast, look at the child.   She is wide awake, her eyes alert as she concentrates on something which is outside the painting.  I am sure she is pondering on her next act of devilment.


Mary Cassatt's Modern Woman Mural
Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman Mural

Mary Cassatt left her homeland, America, and had been living in Paris since 1866.  As an artist she did not become famous back in her homeland until 1893 when she was commissioned to paint a mural for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition and Fair at Chicago.  The position of the proposed mural was the tympanum over the entrance to the Gallery of Honour in the Women’s Building.  A tympanum is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, which is bounded by a lintel and arch.  Her mural, which measured 12ft x 58ft, was in the form of a triptych. The central panel of the triptych was a depiction of an orchard setting and entitled Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science.  The Women’s Building at the exhibition was a showcase of women’s advancement throughout history and Cassatt’s mural was an allegorical work in which we see women picking fruit from trees and handing it down to younger women who were collecting it.

Central panel of triptych
Central panel of triptych

This central panel was meant to symbolise women picking “fruit” from a contemporary “tree of life” and passing it (knowledge) on to a younger generation.  Unfortunately after Exhibition, the Women’s Building was pulled down and Cassatt’s mural was lost but fortunately some black and white photos were taken of the work.

Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)
Baby reaching for an Apple by Mary Cassatt (1893)

So what has all this go to do with my theme of mother and child?  The reason is simple.  My next featured painting by Cassatt was a kind of spin-off from the lost Exhibition mural.  It is entitled Baby Reaching for an Apple and was also completed by Mary in 1893 and now resides in the Virginia Museum, Richmond, Virginia. In the painting we see the mother holding down the branch of the apple tree to allow her young child to reach up and grasp the fruit.  There is a beautiful contrast in colour between the green of the background and the leaves of the tree with the lustrous pink of the mother’s dress, her face and the baby’s body. Note the difference in subdued tonality of the lower part of the mother’s dress with the much brighter pink of the dress that encloses her upper torso and this is reciprocated in the background with the much darker green of the lower half in comparison to the brighter green of the upper background.  Cassatt has obviously spent much time depicting all the apples hanging from the branches.  All are different, all are beautifully painted.  It is a very tender depiction.

Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)
Maternal Caress by Mary Cassatt (1891)

My final offering for this blog is a painting which Mary Cassatt completed in 1891 and is entitled Maternal Caress.  It is a colour drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper, which is presently housed in The National Gallery of Art in Washington.  It is a small work measuring just 36.8 x 26.8 cm (14.5ins x 10.5ins).  Once again this work harks back to the Japanese influence in her work.  Cassatt had seen the exhibition of Japanese woodcuts, which were on display at the École des Beaux-Arts, and it’s is apparent that she wanted to similarly create prints that captured these somewhat audacious designs. The background wallpaper is an orange-brown with a floral motif, which matches that of the upholstery of the armchair.   Against the wall lies a wooden bed with the white fluffed-up bedding which has a softening effect on the depiction.  The mother and child take centre stage in the painting and Cassatt has spent a lot of time creating the intricate detail of the print of the woman’s dress which gives it a hint of Japonism.

It is not known who modelled for this work but it could have been a friend or relative of hers as she often got them to pose with their children for her paintings.  Once again this is a realistic depiction.  It lacks sentimentality.  There is nothing idealized with the mother/child pose we see before us.  It is, to some extent, simply an awkward hug of a child as he seeks comfort from his mother.  She looks very concerned.  Her eyes are closed as if she could not bear to look at her distraught child.  Her left arm is wrapped tightly around her child hoping that the body to body contact will offer some reassurance to her young charge.  Her right arm supports the bottom of the naked child.  The child desperately throws his or her arms around the neck of the mother desperately seeking reassurance.  This genre of mother/child paintings and prints was very popular at the time and Mary Cassatt sold many prints of this work.

In my next blog I will continue looking at works by Mary Cassatt and her fascination with the Mother and Child theme.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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