Baby Lying on his Mother’s Lap by Mary Cassatt. Circa 1914.
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.
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