The sentimentality of Mother’s Day is heightened for me this year as it’s my first one being a mom. My baby daughter has given me a new found appreciation for my own mother who raised three of us girls with much grace and heaps of love. Growing up, we had a couple of Mary Cassatt prints in our bathroom and they perfectly mirrored what transpired in that space everyday when we were little. The evening bathing ritual of a mother fastidiously, yet oh-so-gently, washing the day’s dirt off her small child with stories and songs woven in. While maternal imagery is abundant in art history, think the Madonna and child, we are rarely treated to the theme of mothers and daughters. Fortunately for us, Cassatt captured on canvas many tender moments depicting mothers and daughters during the Impressionist movement.
Motherhood is not idealized in Cassatt’s works, the subjects’ hands look worn while involved in the most ordinary scenes of daily life. Inspired by the fondness of her nieces and nephews and a renewed cultural interest in child rearing, Cassatt created a new genre of painting for mothers and children outside of commissioned portraiture. The late 19th century was a time of child rights reform and we see Cassatt’s championing of that in her depictions of modern female figures, upper and working class alike, making an effort to protect their children through everyday actions.
Her dominant placement of mother and child, filling up the entire composition, was inspired by photography and Japanese wood-cuts. Cassatt often molded the mother-daughter duo into an aesthetically delightful unit using color, form and shape to present us with powerful imagery of maternal nurturing. Much like Japanese wood-cuts, the perspective of her pieces have unusual angles and we’re thrust into the work using the subject’s point-of-view.
Japanese decorative works were à la mode in Paris at the time Cassatt lived in France. Their heavy influence on her pieces is most evident in The Boat Party. This ambitious painting was created to be the pièce de résistance of Cassatt’s first solo exhibition in the States in 1895. Boldly hued shapes come together making an almost abstract composition while patterned ensembles and textured water create a distinguished geometry most pleasing to the eye. A sliver for a horizon at the tippy top dwarfs any distance and we’re cajoled into looking down at the scene of a mother and baby being rowed ashore. Cassatt’s wealthy American contacts helped to make French avant-garde painting like this just as wildly popular in the US as it was in Paris.
Louisine Havemeyer, an American who purchased Young Mother Sewing in 1901, marveled: “Look at that little child that has just thrown herself against her mother’s knee, regardless of the result and oblivious to the fact that she could disturb ‘her mamma.’ And she is quite right, she does not disturb her mother. Mamma simply draws back a bit and continues to sew.” Cassatt captures all the nuances of the close mother and child relationship which is remarkable considering these two subjects were unrelated. Likely two models or friends of Cassatt, they serve as living props in this revolutionary take on the still-life genre.
In Summertime we again see models, a young woman and girl, posing as mother and daughter. Boats and ducks were a common scene for Mary Cassatt at her country home about an hour outside of Paris in Mesnil-Théribus. While summering there in 1894 she created a series of water-inspired paintings commemorating the outdoor splendor. The mother figure is dressed in genteel finery for the hot climate with a wide brimmed hat and white gloves. We see her daughter in a carefree shift dress, its strap falling, soaking up a leisurely summer afternoon; a simple moment commemorated in oils.
Vibrant yellow tones and an affectionate bond draw us into the above piece highlighting a more working class mother and daughter than the duo in Summertime. A worn chair, the child’s lack of clothing and slightly bronzed skin, a sign of much time spent outdoors, tip us off on their social standing. The hand mirror suggests that the mother is teaching her daughter at a very young age that vanity is of utmost importance. By painting this, Cassatt is making a statement against traditional gender roles and fighting back at the patronizing treatment she received from male artists during her career.
While Cassatt inserted social commentary into most of her work, Breakfast in Bed (one of my very favorite works of art!) seems free of any and is simply lovely to gaze at. We’re met with a child’s curious fixation on the nearby tea cup while her mother is physically engaged in their embrace yet looking wistfully away. It makes us wonder what she’s thinking about on such a quiet and dreamy morning – perhaps how awe-inspiring motherhood is.
These exquisitely private portraits of mothers and daughters have reminded me to savor every minute with my little one which is just how I plan on spending this Mother’s Day. I hope they have moved you in a similar manner and to all the mothers and nurturers, here’s wishing you a wonderful Mother’s Day with your nearest and dearest!
PS If you’d like an easy way to introduce art history to your young children or grandchildren, I recommend the board book Quiet Time with Cassatt. I’ve really enjoyed reading it to Louisa, I’m hoping she catches the art bug too!