Woman and Child

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Woman and Child

United States, late 19th or early 20th century
Oil on canvas
28 3/4 x 23 5/8 in. (73.03 x 60.01 cm)
Gift of Deborah and John Landis (AC1996.164.1)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Through the generosity of Deborah and John Landis, the museum acquired its second Mary Cassatt painting, Woman and Child (Mathilde Holding a Child)....
Through the generosity of Deborah and John Landis, the museum acquired its second Mary Cassatt painting, Woman and Child (Mathilde Holding a Child). Cassatt was one of the foremost American artists of the 19th century. Almost her entire career was spent in France as an expatriate, and it was there she became a confidant of Degas and a member of the radical circle of French impressionists. The only American invited to exhibit with them in Paris, Cassatt first presented her famous “mother and child” images at their annual shows. Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (1880), the museum’s other Cassatt oil, is believed to be the artist’s earliest dated modern Madonna. Woman and Child is slightly smaller but equally rich in palette. Manifold are the discussions about Cassatt’s maternal themes and their relationship both to her own life (she remained single, but lived in close rapport with her extended family) and to a contemporary religious revival in France. Recently, scholars have begun questioning the identity of these so-called mothers, and clues can sometimes be found in their attire. Is the woman in our 1880 painting the mother or a servant? She appears to be wearing intimate at-home attire, but an upper-middle-class woman probably would have relegated the domestic chore of her children’s toilet to a nursemaid. One of Cassatt’s servants, Mathilde Vallet, often posed for the artist; but in the context of Woman and Child is she to be read as the mother? There is not enough detail to know what she is wearing. Moreover, although the young child hugs Mathilde, her eyes express a slight skepticism rather than the confidence one would expect. Woman and Child actually has two subjects, for the paint surface is as significant as the imagery. The canvas was intentionally left unfinished (it is signed), suggesting that the artist wanted the viewer to luxuriate in the paint’s physicality. Its surface consists of neutral-colored passages of underpaint as well as areas finished to varying degrees. Cassatt varied her approach, using sweeping strokes, wiggles, parallel lines, and even rubbing out the pigment. The canvas also offers insight into the artist’s working methodology. Typical of an academically trained artist, the faces are the most fully realized. Yet Cassatt built up her three-dimensional forms, first drawing in cobalt blue a quick, sure outline, than applying strokes one over another so that her figures simultaneously suggest solidity and movement. Cassatt had been criticized for her defective drawing by her teachers, who considered her approach slovenly. Today we realize how brilliant a draftsman she was. Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child and Woman and Child document Cassatt’s importance to both American and French painting.

About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.


  • About the Era.
  • LACMA: Obras Maestras 1750-1950: Pintura Estadounidense Del Museo De Arte Del Condado De Los Angeles. Mexico, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 2006.