A mother wearing a striped dress is bathing a child on her knees. One hand is wrapped around the child’s waist while the other is washing the child’s feet. The child, wrapped in a white and clean towel, is gazing at the water in the basin, as her mother does. American painter Mary Cassatt lived as a celibate all her life but drew many paintings depicting motherhood. What motivated the artist’s focus on motherhood?
Cassatt was the only American woman to take part in the French Impressionist exhibition. Born into a wealthy family, she was able to travel to Paris to study art but could not be admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts because women could not attend back then. She studied privately or copied masterpieces from the Louvre. She had to come up with her own strategy to survive in a male-dominated society as a female foreigner. Cassatt wanted to express emotions or experiences unique to women which male artists found difficult to express; hence paintings themed of women, children and motherhood. She chose not to marry or give birth for the sake of her career, but she was always surrounded by female friends and children that served as models. She depicted women attending the opera and boating, as well as everyday lives of women bathing and feeding children, reading or drinking tea. Particularly, she drew many paintings of bathing, inspired by Japanese prints and Edgar Degas.
This painting is also reflective of the lifestyle in the mid 1880s. Cholera broke out in France several times, causing baby mortality rate to rapidly rise. An emphasis on baths and clean environments was highlighted to prevent the spread of the disease. Growing importance was also placed on the mother’s role in childhood, encouraging mothers to look after their own children instead of leaving them with nannies. The child in the painting might have had nanny, but the artist aimed to convey warmth and tenderness by depicting the mother bathing the child.