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Children visible at last

· ​Mary Cassatt’s painting ·

For Mary Cassatt her family’s move to France in 1877 afforded her an opportunity to broaden her iconographic repertoire, adding relatives, especially children, to her scenes of modern life. According to Nancy Mowll Mathews, her very first depiction of a mother and child was her sister-in-law Jennie with her little nephew Gardner who, after his birth, had been in danger of not surviving: an event which seems to have left a deep mark on Aunt Mary, who, as a child, had already suffered the blow of the loss of her little brother Robert. To these family presences were added from the outset the children of direct or indirect acquaintances, such as the famous little girl in a blue armchair, the daughter of friends of Degas.

Mary Cassatt, “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” (1878)

With time the presence of children in Mary Cassatt’s paintings significantly increased until it became almost exclusive. In 1881, the picture La Lecture (Reading), a portrait of Mary’s mother intent on reading fairy stories to her grandchildren exhibited at the sixth exhibition of Impressionism, was especially appreciated by Joris-Karl Huysmans for its properly pictorial qualities and for the absence of that saccharine atmosphere which instead characterized many compositions by other English and French artists: “a woman is equipped to paint children”, a critic observed, “there is a special feeling which men would not be capable of conveying unless they were particularly sensitive and nervous. Their fingers are too large not to leave some rough and clumsy mark”.

It is doubtful whether an independent person such as Mary Cassatt would have chosen this subject in order to gratify the reactionary critics of her time and to confirm their sexist clichés; I think instead that on the one hand she liked children very much and liked in particular to draw their tender, naked limbs, and on the other that she simply recognized in them a true and interesting aspect of modern life, as well as a symbol of the future tout court. Her children are not Jesus, that is, an iconographic archetype, although in tackling such a classical subject Cassatt would certainly have polished up her profoundly competitive spirit and her declared ambition to paint not only like the ancients but even better than them; and it was this secret challenge of which basically Degas became aware, jokingly describing the blond little boy of The Oval Mirror (Mère à l’enfant or Le miroir ovale) as “Jesus and his English nanny”.

“Family Group Reading” (1901)

These children, moreover, are not affected by that sugary sentimentalism characteristic of many contemporary artists such as Alfred Stevens, Eugène Carrière or Henrietta Ward, the object of Huysmans’ cutting words of condemnation. Cassatt’s children are true, profoundly realistic in their daily attitudes, tenderness and curiosity but also in their egotism, disappointment and clumsiness. They are children who have recently become visible as such: their modernity is sustained by a deep cultural change, thanks to which the child is no longer seen as an adult on a reduced scale, but as an autonomous being, with physical, healthcare, cognitive and affective needs of his or her own. “After 1870 French scientists and doctors, such as Louis Pasteur, promoted campaigns to provide children with an adequate and reliable provision of milk, to develop educational programmes scientifically and to involve mothers in the primary care of their progeny”, who had previously been almost completely delegated to nannies, at least in the middle and upper classes.

In brief, science and the nascent discipline of sociology were discovering together the nature, rights and specific needs of children; and it is on these rediscovered children that Mary Cassatt focused her gaze, a gaze that in her own way was aware of the importance of how they were treated and of motherly affection in the first years of life.

Furthermore, in making the most of the mother-child relationship, Mary Cassatt de facto scientifically excluded men from her paintings, focusing on a world in which they did not share and where they truly counted for very little, in perfect harmony with the feminist programmes of the time. It was a world, just as Mary Cassatt paints it, exempt of course from sexuality but not at all from sensuality: in choosing women as subjects by virtue of their being mothers Cassatt restores to them a physicality which is satisfied in the contact with a child, with the plump, soft and naked little bodies.

Martina Corgnati

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