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Mary Cassatt: Painter of Mothers and Children

Mary Cassatt had always exhibited an interest in painting mothers and their children but, in 1880 Cassatt's brother, Alexander, arrived in Paris with his young family. The arrival renewed Cassatt's interest in depicting children, and her nephews and nieces now provided the opportunity for Cassatt to study and paint children from life. Taking advantage of her brother's family as models, she produced such works as the double portrait, Portrait of Mr. Alexander J. Cassatt and his son, Robert Kelso (1884).

One of Cassatt's earliest works on the theme of the mother and child, Mother About to Wash her Sleepy Child (1880), is one in which Cassatt brought together her experiments in Impressionistic brushwork and color, particularly in the use of the complementaries of red and green, and in the way the green of the chair affects the local color of the white dress. But it was in 1889 that Cassatt began the most intensive series of works on this theme, beginning with the unfinished canvas, Emmie and her Child (1889). While mother and child do not look at each other, they are linked by the physical bond created by the child's hand on its mother's face while she, in turn, clasps her child's leg. The child's gesture is repeated in the pastel Baby's First Caress (1891). Because of the appearance here, and in the later painting Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) (1901), of a nude boy-child, and especially because this painting uses the device of the mirror frame to act as a sort of halo, these works have been seen as contemporary forms of the Madonna and child. Yet any lasting association of Cassatt with this tradition is countered by the fact that the majority of her works on the mother-and-child theme are representations of mothers and their daughters.

It has also been suggested that rather than these works being modern reworkings of the Madonna-and-child motif, Cassatt instead used the parent and child to express one of the phases of family life which starts with babyhood. This can be seen in After the Bath (1901), Ellen Mary Cassatt in a White Coat (1896), and The Bath (1891); moving on through the early years of life in The Sisters (1885); to adolescence, in Girl Arranging Her Hair (1886), and Summertime (1894); through to the mature young woman in Susan on a Balcony Holding a Dog (1880), or Portrait of a young Woman in Black (1883); and finally depicting the later stages of female life in the portraits of Cassatt's own mother.

Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror)
1901

The Bath, 1891

The Sisters, 1885

Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886

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