Mary Cassatt became well known for her paintings that depict women and children in domestic settings. Children in a Garden (The Nurse) is the first major Impressionist canvas of the outdoors that she painted, and it is one of her early masterworks. She included it in the eighth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1886, and in her first major U.S. solo exhibition in 1895.
The painting shows a nursemaid knitting while seated on a bench in a flower-bordered garden. One of her charges sleeps in a nearby carriage, and the other plays at her feet. As with much of Cassatt’s work that was based on closely studying family, friends, and servants, this scene offers an intimate glimpse into the private lives of the subjects and portrays the charming characteristics of children and babies without the sentimentality that distinguished so many paintings of the time.
Unusual for Cassatt, however, is the work’s looser application of paint, its off-center composition, and its emphasis on the landscape. The bright sunlight knits the composition together; brilliant colors sweep through the canvas; and expertly articulated figures show the artist’s disciplined draftsmanship and her ability to make them lifelike through careful dabs of paint. For example, the slightly downturned mouth of the baby in its carriage, along with the hand nestled against its face for comfort, indicate deep, peaceful sleep.