Maternal Caress

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, American, 1844 - 1926

Date:
c. 1896

Medium:
Oil on canvas

Dimensions:
15 x 21 1/4 inches (38.1 x 54 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

* Gallery 111, American Art, first floor

Accession Number:
1970-75-2

Credit Line:
Bequest of Aaron E. Carpenter, 1970

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Mary Cassatt spent most of her life and career in France, where she was an active member of elite social and artistic circles. In the late 1870s she forged friendships with innovative painters including Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas, becoming the only American to be officially associated with the Impressionists. At the end of the nineteenth century, many artists turned to the "mother and child" theme as an updated version of the Madonna and child, but Cassatt made it her specialty. Through her experiments with painting, pastel, and printmaking, she captured the daily lives of women and children, uniting a traditional subject with new artistic techniques. Later works such as Maternal Caress often focus on the child, demonstrating Cassatt's sensitive observation of young people growing up in a modern world.

Additional information:
  • PublicationMasterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art

    In the 1890s, Mary Cassatt grew dissatisfied with the Impressionist goal of rendering a purely physical world and, along with Puvis de Chavannes and Paul Gauguin, embraced a style of painting called Neo-Traditionism, which married realism with subjects having symbolic or allegorical meaning. Deeply influenced by her study of Old Master paintings in the Musée du Louvre and by several trips to Italy, Cassatt admired the layers of meaning in Renaissance art and sought to bring similar content to contemporary painting. Maternal Caress, in which the subjects are framed to emphasize their large rounded forms and to limit external distractions, recalls medieval and Renaissance compositions of the Madonna and Child. Cassatt has increased the sense of intimacy between mother and child by shifting the perspective over the mother's shoulder. The painting followed an important commission for a large-scale mural (now lost) devoted to the subject of modern women, which decorated the Women's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The three panels of the mural showed women and children engaged in everyday activities emblematic of gathering knowledge, pursuing fame, and practicing the arts. Cassatt's focus on women and children in her late works stresses the vital social role of women in childcare and education. Jennifer A. Thompson, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 196.

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