In 1866, when Mary Cassatt was 22 years old, she made a life-defining choice. Unsatisfied with the depth of opportunities afforded to women studying art in America, Cassatt moved to Paris to enrich her education. Eventually, she fell into the world of Impressionism, befriending fellow artists such as Edgar Degas.
During her time abroad, Cassatt continued to learn, experiment, and flourish, producing an impressive catalogue that includes many works celebrating the relationship between mother and child. One of those is Caresse Maternelle (about 1902), in which a young child and mother embrace each other to such an extent that their pressed faces almost merge.
The duo’s eyes don’t quite meet; a direct gaze isn’t necessary to convey their connection. You can’t help but think that this is a common occurrence—the energetic child acting on the sudden desire to be near Mom. The little one rushes into the room using an internal compass that directs her to her source of safety and comfort. A hop on the lap and a tender crash of excitement give us the very scene Cassatt brought into existence with broad brushstrokes. The tight embrace of two beings tangled into one is imbued with a warmth emanating from the red between pressed cheeks and the brightness of the yellow sofa.
Although Cassatt created a seemingly never-ending collection of touching depictions of mother and child, she never had any children. In fact, she never even married. The Mary Cassatt we know today could just as easily have been Mary Roberts, wife and mother of three who lived a quiet existence in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. For it would not have been unheard of for her to already have a family of her own at the age she decided to move to Paris.
It’s been about 120 years since Cassatt painted Caresse Maternelle, but this painting filled with affection has crossed my mind a lot lately. I’ve thought about it, and Cassatt’s entire body of work, this year—when my right to make decisions about my own body and my own life has been perilously scrutinized and in some places revoked altogether.
Cassatt’s dedication to her work rather than the home means she did not have a conventional life for a woman in her time. We may not know without a doubt that she intentionally decided not to start a family, but we do know that she actively chose to pursue art. She chose to make a name for herself. She chose to turn the future she envisioned into a reality. Her disinclination toward her society’s expectations and norms gave us the extraordinary figure we know today. In this day and age, I hope to live in a country where I have full rights over when and how I have children—if I decide to at all. I want to live in a society where I can choose to have both a family and a career, children and a passion. I don’t want to have to pick between one or the other as Mary did. Mary taught me that the choice not to have children can mean the choice to preserve and nurture one’s own life.
She also masterfully illuminates that a woman does not need to procreate or raise children to understand and admire the remarkable relationship between parent and child. How wonderful that a woman who never had any offspring of her own was able to so accurately portray the unique bond of mother and child. How lovely that a childless Mary Cassatt created so much life.