Motherhood celebrated in art of Mary Cassatt

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With the arrival of Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, we look for ways to pay tribute to mothers around us as well as to motherhood around the world.

In addition to paying tribute our own mother or to her memory, we can look for ways that people honor motherhood in literature, sculpture, film, painting and other art forms.

Writers frequently pay tribute to the love and sacrifice of mothers in their work. George Eliot wrote, “My life began with waking and loving my mother’s face.”

Other writers like Mark Twain wrote about motherhood with humor. Twain wrote, “My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.”

Motherhood is celebrated in many famous paintings from around the world. One American artist who spent much of the last part of her life portraying the bonds between mothers and their children was Mary Cassatt, who spent many years in Europe studying with impressionists and other artists.

Cassatt was serious about her art and decided early in her life that marriage might not be compatible with her career. She did not have children of her own, yet she was able to capture numerous scenes of mothers and children in close relationships.

One of Cassatt’s most famous paintings is “The Child’s Bath.” This work shows a mother sitting on a stool with a child on her lap. The child is wrapped in a towel and has its feet in a bath bowl as the mother is washing the tiny feet.

The distinctive feature of this painting is the mother’s blue, white and lavender robe. Both mother and child are looking at the bath bowl on the floor as the mother bathes the child’s feet.

This painting shows a mother going about routine child care, showing no emotion or concern as it illustrates a slice of simple life that might take place in an ordinary home of the time in which it was painted. The child clearly trusts the mother who provides tender and routine care.

Another of Cassatt’s familiar paintings shows a mother sitting in front of a window and also wearing a striped dress, this time with a frilly blue apron or overlay. The mother is doing needlework and paying no attention to the little girl, who is leaning on her mother’s knee and showing signs of boredom as she looks directly at the viewer. Although the mother is concentrating more on the needlework than she is the child, there is clearly a tender bond between the two as they experience an ordinary moment in their lives.

Still another Cassatt favorite pictures the mother sitting in a chair with her back to the viewer. The focus of this painting is the unclothed child as he relaxes on the mother’s shoulder and is apparently just before falling asleep. This image, mostly in white with light and dark shades of gray, depicts a mother as she dutifully tries to get the child to sleep, another scene that is played out in ordinary homes throughout history. Cassatt created a sweet but not exciting scene, one true to ordinary life.

Other Cassatt paintings have mothers feeding, dressing, kissing, hugging or reading to a child as he or she touches the mother’s face with tender affection.

Although most of Cassatt’s paintings of this genre show a mother with a single child, some have a second young one who competes for the mother’s attention.

Several threads run true through Cassatt’s paintings of mother and child.

First, there is clear affection between the figures and seldom a mood of tension or impatience that mothers sometimes have for children in real life.

Second, the mood is usually calm, unhurried and tender as it sets out to portray mothers as they care for children in the way that society expects them to.

Finally, Cassatt’s paintings show the day-by-day activities that make up the majority of time that mothers spend with their children, not the special events that occur less frequently.

Mary Cassatt understood the relationship that mothers have with children, although she had not experienced motherhood herself.

This year as we celebrate Mother’s Day, let us be thankful for ordinary moments and the extraordinary gifts that our mothers gave to us in simple, day-by-day care as we observe in Mary Cassatt’s art.

While we are being thankful for our own mother and mother figures, take a good look at Cassatt’s mother and child paintings and try how to figure out how she was able to capture all those tender moments, even though she never had children of her own.

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.