Maternal Caress, 1890–91
Drypoint, aquatint, and soft-ground etching on laid paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
Purchase with funds provided by Ruth Carter Johnson
In 1890 Parisians flocked to an exhibition of Japanese prints at the École des Beaux-Arts. The American expatriate Mary Cassatt returned to the exhibition many times, writing excitedly to her friend the French painter Berthe Morisot (1841--1895): "You who want to make color prints you couldn't dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don't think of anything else but color on copper." (Cassatt to Berthe Morisot, April 1890, in Nancy Mowll Mathews, ed., Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 214.) The impact of the Japanese aesthetic is evident in Cassatt's series of ten color prints depicting women in domestic roles, of which Maternal Caress (1890--91) and Interior of a Tramway Passing a Bridge (ca. 1891) are a part. Like the Japanese, Cassatt drew upon scenes of everyday life; employed a shallow pictorial space; and emphasized pattern against flat, unmodulated passages of color.
This print is a touching variation on one of Cassatt's favorite themes: mothers caring for their children. Eyes closed, the mother pulls her child toward her, a gesture reciprocated by the contented child as their cheeks touch. The composition reiterates the protective sentiments of motherhood by enveloping the child within a closed, oval format. All the compositional elements draw attention to the infant, the smallest form, framed by alternating layers of clearly demarcated patterns and solid receding planes. Cassatt used etching and drypoint sparingly to define the subjects' eyes and hair, while the aquatint process imparted a range of soft colors---the light gray lavender of the dress, the shades of brown and yellow that define the room, and the pale blue linen on the bed. Cassatt intended to show the ten color prints at the annual Société des Peintres-Graveurs Français exhibition held in Paris. Upon learning that she was excluded because she was not a French native, she responded by displaying the prints in an adjoining gallery.
Born in Pittsburgh into an old, prosperous Pennsylvania family, Mary Cassatt (1844--1926) received her primary artistic education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which she entered in 1860. After the Civil War she traveled to Paris where she studied with several renowned French masters, including Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824--1904) and Thomas Couture (1815--1879). By the mid-1870s she had settled in France permanently. Her friendships with Edgar Degas (1834--1917) and Camille Pissarro (ca. 1830--1903) coincided with a transition in her work toward the dynamic brushwork and high-keyed colors of impressionism. Cassatt devoted herself to portraiture, most frequently depicting women and children, and often chose to feature members of her extended family. The French impressionists invited her to participate in their 1879 exhibition; thereafter, she moved comfortably within their circle, actively exhibiting and selling her paintings, pastels, and prints. Around this time she also began producing etchings and dryprints, which would ultimately number more than two hundred. Later in life she became a supporter of the women's suffrage movement, and during World War I she aided Belgian refugees in France. Although the vigorous modernist movement emerged well before her death, Cassatt never approved of abstract art, which lacked the finish and careful methodology that she herself practiced. Failing eyesight plagued her in her later years, and she died in France in 1926 at age eighty-two.