Mary Cassatt, the most daring of the American Impressionists, came from a well-to-do Pittsburgh family and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. An independent spirit, Cassatt moved permanently to France and eventually cast aside her training, which she found stifling to creativity. Cassatt’s moment of self-discovery occurred in Paris in the mid-1870s through her friendship with Edgar Degas, who invited her to show with the French Impressionists. The Impressionists, or Indépendants, offered an alternative to the conservative, government-sponsored Salon. Cassatt was the only American participant in their vanguard exhibitions, and the contact with her fellow exhibitors invigorated her. She embraced subjects from her day-to-day experiences and studied Japanese prints for new pictorial ideas. The popular identification of Cassatt with the theme of mother and child, which began around 1880, was fully established by 1900, when her works found a wide audience.
Created about 1889, the Art Museum’s painting is among Cassatt’s most monumental renditions of maternity. Here mother and child are a tight unit, enclosed within a single form. To further emphasize their bond, the artist made them identical in hair color and complexion. It is remarkable that the painting is such a powerful expression of affection, given that Cassatt
has turned the mother’s face away from the viewer. The child’s casual sucking of his finger reveals his total security as he is wrapped snugly in his mother’s arm, his head touching her cheek. The restricted, decorative range of tones and the sketchy, nearly abstract background truly herald Cassatt’s modernity.