Art historians have sought for a century to understand the motivation that drove Mary Cassatt against critical opinion and away from her early subject matter toward her series of Mothers and their Children that occupied her for what is now considered to be the prime of her artistic career. The series somewhat resembles the familiar images of Madonna of Child in visual organization, yet the level of intimacy shared by her subjects, while comparable in its level of intensity is set apart by the total absorption of her subjects in their own shared moment, completely independent and entirely unaware of the viewer’s presence. This was a controversial and highly progressive step at a time when the majority of art was painted by men, assumed a male viewership, and treated female subjects primarily as erotic objects of the male gaze. Completed in 1880, Mother about to Wash her Sleepy Child is one of the early paintings in the series, and is typical in its structure as well as its highly intimate subject matter.
Griselda Pollock and Nancy Mowll Mathews, both notable modern art historians, write about the series of paintings; Pollock in an essay entitled, “Mary Cassatt: The Touch and the Gaze, or Impressionism for Thinking People”, and Mathews as part of a much longer biographical work, Mary Cassatt: A Life. Both authors are quick to agree on the importance the mother and child series holds as a theme within Mary Cassatt’s larger body of work as well as the innovation represented by its depictions of women entirely unconcerned with the intruding gaze of the viewer. While they place equal importance on the significance of the Mother and Child series, they approach it from two dramatically different directions.
Mathew’s approach, which follows the traditional understanding of the Mother and Child series much more closely than does Pollock’s, is firmly grounded in the biographical nature of her book, Mary Cassatt: A Life. Cassatt, who was born into a wealthy American family moved to Paris as a young woman to pursue painting, eventually finding herself rejected by the mainstream Salon and exhibiting alongside the radical group of Impressionists that revolutionized French art in the nineteenth century. At the time Mathews begins her discussion of the Mother and Child series, Cassatt was in the prime of her creative career, having already achieved a high level of success following the Impressionist exhibition of 1979. Until that point, much of Cassatt’s subject matter was inspired by her fellow Impressionists, depicting scenes of young women in the setting of the theater. However, even early in her career, Cassatt’s work was distinctive in its depiction of women as participants in the action of her paintings, rather than objects framed by them.
At roughly the same time as she began her Mother and Child series, Mary Cassatt’s older sister, Lydia, who had appeared in several of her earlier paintings fell terminally ill. Mathews points to this as the moment...