3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath”

The Child's Bath, 1893. Mary Cassatt (American, 1844- 1926). Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago.

We’re honoring Mother’s Day today with a well-known image that captures the tender bond between mother and child.  Cassatt was an American expatriate who settled in Paris in 1873 and spent most of her career in France. She remained underappreciated in the US until late in her life. Today, however, her paintings are hung prominently in the most prestigious American museums as celebrated examples of the Impressionist movement, and The Child’s Bath, an oil painting from 1893, is one of the masterpieces of Cassatt’s oeuvre. If you’re ever in Chicago, check it out at the Art Institute.

1. Remember Japonisme, the influence of the Japanese aesthetic on artists of the late 19th century, from last month’s post on Hokusai? Cassatt was one such artist, and it shows in The Child’s Bath. The unorthodox composition of the painting, with its elevated vantage point, plunging perspective, and flattened picture plane, demonstrates the inspiration from Japanese prints, which Cassatt first viewed at a Parisian exhibit in 1890, shortly before this painting was made.  Similarly, the emphasis on decorative patterns such as the stripes of the mother’s dress and the rug beneath her is suggestive of a Japanese aesthetic.  Learn more: in addition to her famed oil paintings, Cassatt also experimented with prints that emulated the Japanese style while tackling subject matter dear to her. Check out this example, also at the Art Institute, and see how she approaches the same theme in a different medium.

The Bath, 1890/91. Mary Cassatt (1844- 1926), printed with Leroy (French, active 1876- 1900). Drypoint and aquatint with soft etching. Art Institute of Chicago.

2. Cassatt was asked by Edgar Degas in 1877 to join the Impressionist movement, and she was one of only four women and the sole American to become part of that very famous group.  The theme of the bather was an enduring one for the Impressionists, particularly Degas, whose works such as The Tub take a more voyeuristic approach than here. Cassatt’s response to the theme instead conveys a sense of intimacy through the single gaze of the mother and child towards the water and of respectful distance through the high vantage point. By painting a nude child and clothed mother, Cassatt was able to explore the sensuality and tenderness of the body without any overt sexuality at play.  For contrast, here’s The Tub, which is in the collection of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay:

The Tub, 1886. Edgar Degas (French, 1834- 1917). Pastel on card. Musée d'Orsay.

3. The theme of mothers and children was one dear to Cassatt, who spent the 1890s exploring it in paintings and prints. Her interest reflects the new social emphasis on childcare emerging in the era’s literature, and her subject matter avoids becoming idealized and overly mawkish because of the honest, carefully observed figures.  She alone succeeded in avoiding sentimentality: one critic complained that in comparison to Cassatt, “The bunch of English and French daubers have put them in such stupid and pretentious poses!”

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