Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child

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Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child

United States, 1880
Paintings
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 39 1/2 × 25 7/8 in. (100.33 × 65.72 cm) Frame (framed): 47 15/16 × 34 5/8 × 4 3/4 in. (121.76 × 87.95 × 12.07 cm)
Mrs. Fred Hathaway Bixby Bequest (M.62.8.14)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

This painting is considered among Cassatt’s earliest, if not her first, treatment of her popular mother and child image....
This painting is considered among Cassatt’s earliest, if not her first, treatment of her popular mother and child image. According to Achille Segard, the painting was exhibited during April 1880 in the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition. Although none of Cassatt’s contributions is enumerated in the catalogue, she is known to have shown eight paintings. If Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child was included, then the customary explanation of Cassatt’s use of this theme, i.e., that she began painting the subject after spending much time with her nieces and nephews during her brother Alexander’s visit to France in the summer of 1880, is incorrect. Whatever her initial motivation, Cassatt would devote nearly one third of her artistic production to such themes, as did many artists of the period. Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child is an example of Cassatt’s work as an impressionist, shortly before her mature, more solid style began to emerge. In the 1870s, no doubt inspired by Degas and other French impressionists, Cassatt began depicting intimate domestic scenes, often of figures in interiors. In this painting a woman tenderly washes her child. The image is cropped on both sides --a favorite device of Degas, who borrowed it from contemporary photographs and Japanese prints -- and the entire scene is slightly tilted up and compressed into the narrow foreground. The stripes of the chair’s upholstery and the wallpaper intensify this verticality. While the Japanese qualities of Cassatt’s art are usually considered in terms of her later paintings and prints, she actually assimilated the oriental aesthetic quite early. Already apparent in Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child are the use of an intimate subject and a skillfully balanced surface design incorporating areas of patterning, both encouraged by the example of Japanese prints. Historians have often commented on the pose of the child, especially the position of his legs, finding sources in Madonna and Child images by Parmigianino (1503-1540) and Antonio Correggio (1494-1534). Although Cassatt knew of Italian religious painting and late nineteenth-century artists tended to dress biblical persons in contemporary attire, such historical sources are not necessary to explain the pose. Such awkward naturalism is quite typical of works by her mentor, Degas, and demonstrates how Cassatt utilized every aspect of the scene to convey the modernity, the untraditional representation, of the image. The overall surface is quite sketchy, as Cassatt vigorously brushed out contour lines with thick pigment to convey a sense of the momentary. Nevertheless, the form is not lost, as demonstrated by the mother’s superbly delineated right hand. In the 1870s, influenced by the impressionists, Cassatt began to lighten and brighten her palette. In her work she reflects the impressionist fascination with the color white. Although the palette used here is lighter than that of her previous paintings, it still exhibits an intense hue, as Cassatt explored the reflection of the blue and green of the setting and the flesh tones on the white attire of the figures and the interaction of all the colors. The delicate tints and brushwork are combined to create a shimmering surface. The painting was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Atmore Pope, Americans whom Cassatt met in Naugatuck, Connecticut, in 1898-99 during her first trip home since the Franco-Prussian War. Pope had amassed a fortune in the steel industry, and by the time of his introduction to Cassatt had already begun to collect impressionist paintings, which now constitute the collection of the Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Connecticut. The Popes’ daughter, Theodate, became Cassatt’s most intimate young friend.
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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.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Kim, Woollin, Jinmyung Kim, and Songhyuk Yang, eds. Art Across America. Seoul: National Museum of Korea, 2013.
  • Miller, Angela, and Chris McAuliffe, eds. America: Painting a Nation. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013.
  • About the Era.
  • Kim, Woollin, Jinmyung Kim, and Songhyuk Yang, eds. Art Across America. Seoul: National Museum of Korea, 2013.
  • Miller, Angela, and Chris McAuliffe, eds. America: Painting a Nation. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013.
  • Mathews, Nancy Mowll, ed. Cassatt: a Retrospective. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1996.
  • Harris, Ann Sutherland and Linda Nochlin.  Women Artists: 1550-1950.  Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.
  • Donahue, Kenneth. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Handbook. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977.
  • Breeskin, Adelyn Dohme. Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Graphic Work. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.
  • Price, Lorna.  Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
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  • Beckett, Sister Wendy.  Sister Wendy's American Collection, Toby Eady Associates, ed.  Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.
  • Bray, Dr. Xavier. Mujeres Impresionistas: La otra mirada.  Bilbao, Spain: Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 2001.
  • Mary Cassatt: A Brush with Independence.  Greater Washington Educational Telecommunications Association, Inc.: 2001.
  • University of California, San Francisco.  Brochure: Embracing Our Future: The Brave New World of Children's Health.  San Francisco: University of California, San Francisco, 2001.
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