Mother about to Wash her Sleepy Child Mary Cassatt Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Painted in 1880, just as Mary Cassatt's embrace of the new form of painting and art known as Impressionism began to show in the expertise of her works, 'Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child' is a wonderful example of the form.

Impressionists sought to create works of art that also captured a slice of life – the informal snapshot of the time, perhaps – whilst still pleasing the senses aesthetically. This image is exactly the sort of scene that mothers all over the world love to show their offspring's new romantic partners: 'this is a picture of him/ her in his bath, when he/she was two or three'! The mother has prepared a basin of warm water, and then brought her child into the room to have a quick wash before being prepared for bed – but she has left it a moment or two too late and the child, little more than a baby, is overtired.

Instead of sitting up to be bathed, the baby is lying back in his or her mother's arms, fully relaxed – and very hard to hold while so limp! – limbs sprawled comfortably. The mother is lightly concerned, seeking to hold the child close with one arm, while the other is busy about her original intentions, her hand dipping a wash-cloth or sponge in the water. The scene is sweetly domestic as evidenced by the light colours of pale blue and white of the mother and child's clothing, the apparently floral pink and green patterned curtains behind: the whole adds up to a wonderfully normal moment that would have happened in nurseries all over the western world each evening. And yet, there is, as often with Cassatt's work, a strong streak of feminine strength being displayed in the painting.

The child is completely trusting and relaxed, because they have learned, in their admittedly short experience, that they can entirely trust the woman to look after them: to hold them securely, even with one arm, and to ensure that the child is never dropped or harmed by the woman's actions. Of course, this is something that is taken for granted by almost everyone: of course a mother will look after her child, that is what mothers do!

Cassatt never married and never had a child, but from the time of this painting she produced many works examining the actions of and bonds between very young children and their mothers. Was it perhaps a moment of mourning for her fertile years passing, or was she simply filled with admiration for the way her fellow women subjugated their own lives under the needs of their children? Quite possibly both apply: people seldom being simple or motivated by black and white ideas. This charming oil on canvas painting can be seen in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and measures just over a metre tall by 65 centimetres wide.