Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Consolations of Mary Cassatt

As the residents of Newtown bury their dead this week, Mary Cassatt's paintings are much on my mind, especially her paintings of mothers and children.  Her paintings are perhaps even more consoling in this day and age than the older religious paintings.  These are familiar experiences, even to those of us who are not parents, and they require no mythic or credal understanding.  They are deeply humane images of our most basic experience of love and affection, as children and as parents.  They quietly declare these experiences to be good and valuable for their own sakes.

Sometimes Mary Cassatt's paintings of mothers and children are secularized and updated versions of the old Madonna and Child theme.  She takes on the old Renaissance painters on their own turf and acquits herself magnificently.  Other times, her paintings are more modern candid glimpses into the intimacies of private family life.  Sometimes, her paintings are more complex combinations of a variety of influences from the Italian High Renaissance to photography to Japanese prints.

Always her paintings are affectionate without resort to sentimentality.  It is a strange irony that this most poetic painter of motherhood was herself childless.

As time goes on, I have a growing respect and affection for the work of Mary Cassatt.

Baby's First Caress, 1890

The Bath, 1891

Sleepy Baby, 1910

Breakfast in Bed, 1897

Mother and Child

The Family, 1887

Mother and Child, 1890

Young Mother Sewing, 1902


Tristan Alexander said...

I have always loved Mary Cassatt's work!

JCF said...

Her subject matter may have been socially-dictated (the way female reporters were delegated to the "Women's Section" for so many years), yet her subjects are refreshingly unsentimental. Her mothers LOVE their children, w/o giving the impression they 100% LIKE them. ;-/

Counterlight said...

Mary Cassatt was once savaged by feminist critics for her subject matter, especially for her paintings of mothers and children. That she was unmarried and childless only intensified the fury of her critics in the 1970s and 80s.

That seems to have abated now, replaced by a new appreciation of her considerable abilities as a painter, and for her successful efforts to bring Impressionism and modern painting to the attention of the American public.

June Butler said...

I've been meaning to thank you for the lovely post on Mary Cassatt. I've never quite understood the feminist critics, for she was a fine artist. They should have been proud.

Actually, in a good many of the pictures, the woman appears to have a rather detached expression on her face, which saves the paintings over-sentimentality. It's as though she's thinking about something else, something that has nothing to do with the child, another part of her life.

Counterlight said...

"Actually, in a good many of the pictures, the woman appears to have a rather detached expression on her face, which saves the paintings over-sentimentality."

Very good point.