Mary Cassatt: Modernizing the Mother and Child Trope

  • November 07, 2018 09:14

  • Email
Baby Lying on his Mother’s Lap by Mary Cassatt. Circa 1914.
M.S. Rau Antiques (New Orleans)
Baby Lying on his Mother’s Lap by Mary Cassatt. Circa 1914.
M.S. Rau Antiques (New Orleans)
Baby Lying on his Mother’s Lap by Mary Cassatt. Signed lower left.
M.S. Rau Antiques (New Orleans)

In a nondescript room, a young mother cradles her infant son in her arms. Smiling, he attempts to grasp the vibrant orange scarf that she dangles in front of him.

The intimate tableau reflects Mary Cassatt’s vision of modern motherhood and domesticity. Painted in pastel, the work was completed in 1914, which was the year that she retired from painting due to her failing eyesight. Thus, it represents the complete culmination of this famed painters’ oeuvre, particularly her dedication to the theme of mother and child.

While the trope of the mother and child is an old one in the history of art, Cassatt’s treatment of the subject and her artistic ideologies were avant-garde. Cassatt herself was at the time considered radical – though she was not the only woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, she was the only American to be officially welcomed into the group. Together, her Americanness and her sex made her an anomaly on the French art scene.

Because she was a woman, she was unable to easily move in the male-dominated spheres that are more commonly seen in Impressionist works – the horse races, dance halls, cafés and brothels were completely inaccessible to the bourgeois Cassatt. Yet, she knew the world of women far better than her male counterparts, and her images of domesticity have come to pay tribute to the modern feminine experience.

The theme of the mother and child emerges from the tender images of the Madonna and Child, a popular subject in Christian art that rose to prominence during the Renaissance. Not only was the Virgin Mary depicted as the mother of Jesus, but she also was a divine entity in her own right. In many ways, these early depictions of the Madonna as both sentimental and saintly came to inform the way in which painters would depict women, and specifically mothers, in art for centuries.

Unlike the Pieta-style renderings of the mother as a divine domestic figure, Cassatt introduced a new image of the modern woman into the realm of art history in the 1880s and 90s. Though firmly in the domestic realm, her subjects were not the divine untouchable woman with her well-behaved baby. Instead, she captures women who are educated and thoughtful, with babies that are playful, chubby and squirming. She excels at depicting the complex relationship between the mother and her child, all while avoiding the sentimentality that was so common in earlier works on the subject.

This work in pastel, entitled Baby Lying on his Mother’s Lap, Reaching to Hold a Scarf, exemplifies her innovations on the theme. Absorbed in their private play, the tender bond between the two figures is keenly felt, as well as the artist’s emotional response to the intimate moment she has captured. Her palette – full of vibrant yellows – both adheres to the Impressionist tradition and enhances the joyous mood of the scene. Though she was never married and never became a mother, she is one of the very few painters to have so accurately interpreted the nuances of maternity on canvas.

About M.S. Rau Antiques:
M.S. Rau Antiques has spent over 100 years earning the trust of discerning collectors worldwide. Located in the heart of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, our peerless showroom houses one of the world’s most extensive and stunning collections of museum-quality fine art by artists such as Claude Monet and William Bouguereau, 18th- and 19th-century antiques, and breathtaking jewelry, including rare colored diamonds.


  • Email

Beauty, Rarity, History...The M.S. Rau Antiques Blog

A New Orleans institution for over 100 years, M.S. Rau Antiques is among the premier antiques galleries in the world. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, our 25,000 square foot gallery overflows with incredible antiques by names including Tiffany & Co., Paul Revere and Fabergé. Our unparalleled selection of important, original paintings and sculpture spans the 16th through the 21st century, created by legendary artists such as Brueghel, Monet and Rockwell, and our diverse selection of exquisite jewels, including rare colored diamonds, Kashmir sapphires and Burma rubies is without equal.

More Posts from Beauty, Rarity, History...The M.S. Rau Antiques Blog

This ivory-topped Doctor's Cane contains everything needed to make a house call.

The Un-cane-y World of Canes

  • August 26th, 2010 13:51

Canes and walking sticks, upon first mention, sound perhaps like the least interesting objects in the world to ...

Read More...
A rare and stunning Burmese Imperial jadeite is the star of this striking ring

What’s in a Name? The Splendor of Imperial Jadeite Jewelry

  • September 20th, 2010 14:55

“Gold is estimable; but Jade is priceless.”  –Chinese proverb Shrouded behind a veil of verdant mystery for ...

Read More...
Deep blue, violet and emerald hues shimmer in this magnificent ginger jar in the "Jewelled Tree" pattern with "Cat and Mouse and Copper Trees" panels

Elves, Nymphs and Fairies–Oh My!: Illustrious Fairyland Lustre by Wedgwood

  • September 28th, 2010 07:50

An over-200-year-old company finds itself on the verge of financial ruin as war rages on. It's only savior an unknown ...

Read More...
This monumental chandelier is saturated with oversized, luminous prisms and beads of fine Baccarat crystal

Baccarat…Crystal Fit for a King

  • October 13th, 2010 07:58

In response to a wealthy landowner's request to make the best use of the natural resources of the infertile Baccarat ...

Read More...

ARTFIXdaily Artwire