With the Christmas holiday season in full swing, we asked Heather Lemonedes, Curator of Drawings, to discuss inspirations and influences of Madonna and Child imagery in the work of Mary Cassatt. Mary Cassatt and the Feminine Ideal in 19th-Century Paris is on view through January 21, 2013.
Beloved by Clevelanders, Mary Cassatt’s pastel, After the Bath, 1902 depicts a young mother flanked by two children. A rhythm is created by the three intertwined bodies; both siblings lean into the figure of the mother and their hands meet at the center of the composition. The boldness of the palette—brilliant orange and yellow contrasted with cool blue and luminous, lime green—and the dynamic use of black pastel are emphatically modern.
The only American artist who exhibited with the Impressionists in Paris in 1879 and the 1880s, Cassatt identified herself as a member of the avant-garde. And yet, many of her compositions of mothers and children put a naturalistic and secular spin on traditional religious subjects, drawn from Renaissance paintings and sculpture.
Her knowledge and admiration for the art of this period was nourished by years spent traveling in Italy and Spain before she settled in Paris. Cassatt particularly admired the paintings of Sandro Botticelli. The Italian Renaissance artist painted multiple versions of the Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist which likely inspired After the Bath.
Cassatt transformed the figure of Saint John into a little girl with golden hair and the Christ Child’s adoration of his mother into filial love. The Renaissance theme of the Madonna and Child provided Cassatt with a rich and timeless reference from which she drew upon to inform her own innovative style. By referring to the Madonna and Child theme in After the Bath, Cassatt simultaneously made the sacred modern and loaned the scene of daily life a gravitas that surpasses the bourgeois setting.