Monday, February 15, 2010

Mary Cassatt: Studies in Mothers and Children 2

Mother Combing Her Child's Hair, 1901

I love this painting by Mary Cassatt, because it shows the child's patience in being attended to. Having one's hair combed can be uncomfortable, but this child is sitting on her mother's lap, head up, her hands folded in patience, waiting for her mother to finish. In her stance is a pride and enjoyment in her mother's careful attention to her. A child lets the parent do this, because the child knows he is too young to take control of these matters and needs this help--that too is conveyed in this painting. I try to imagine these paintings as photographs to see in my mind if they would have the same impact, but somehow the painting raises these seemingly mundane moments to a higher appreciation. Although the subject is the mother and child, Cassatt is celebrating the intimacy of the relationship between them--as seen in the counterbalanced tilts of their heads--with particular attention to the child's cooperation.

The Bath, 1893

Here again, we see the child patiently watching as her mother take care of her, in this case washes her feet. The child looks down with patience and interest; one can only imagine that it is a gentle mother who may also be talking to her child. In the close composition of this painting, each element echoes the other in perfect harmony, and this painting is often discussed as showing the influence of Japanese painting and prints on Cassatt's oeuvre. It is also a triumph in painting the moment. Here again, the cooperation is shown through the stance of their heads--side by side, looking down at the child's feet. The solemnity of the event--washing the child's feet--may also have a religious connotation, highlighting the way in which mothers think and act, usually without hesitation, for the needs of their children, without a second thought to themselves.

Young Mother Sewing, 1900

I love this painting too. The mother looks at her sewing; the child is looking at Cassatt painting her and her mother. The mother was sitting there sewing, and the child has come over to see her. She leans down on her mother, as if she is waiting for her mother to finish and attend to her need--Can we go outside? Can you read a book to me? Can you get my toy that's on the top shelf? Can you play with me? Just a minute; I have to finish this seam. The child may be patiently waiting or may be pestering her mom, but suddenly there is a third person. The child looks with interest but with no excitement--she is nonchalant about being the subject of attention for a painter; she is concerned with being an object of attention for her mother. That's what she is waiting for.

In these three paintings, as in many others, Cassatt shows her acute sensitivity to the way mood transforms a child's face, gestures, and postures. Mrs. Cassatt had no children of her own, a source of pain for her, but was actively involved with her nieces and nephews and with the children of friends, whom she painted as the passed through the childhoods. One wonders if her studies of the intimacy between mother and child were also for Miss Cassatt metaphors for her own process of artistic creation.

You may also want to see Mary Cassatt: Studies in Mothers and Children 1 and Mary Cassatt: More Than an Impressionist.

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