About This Artwork

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926)
printed with Leroy (French, active 1876-1900)

The Bath, 1890-91

Color drypoint, aquatint and softground etching from two plates, printed à la poupée, on ivory laid paper
321 x 247 mm (image/plate); 436 x 300 mm (sheet)

Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1932.1287

Mathews & Shapiro 5 17/17; Breeskin 143 11/11

Mothers and children were popular visual subjects long before the 19th century; it wasn’t until after the Enlightenment, however, that images of maternal undress were accepted in contexts other than the representation of Christian subjects. Beginning with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment-era thinkers, people began to view childhood as a treasured moment in human development rather than a mere step to productive adulthood. As a result, children were increasingly seen as carefree, innocent, and deserving of protection. Their nudity in art was a commonly used symbol of natural purity and vulnerability.

As views of childhood changed, so did ideas about the roles of mothers. Women of the upper class were encouraged to be more active in the daily lives of their children, and works in this gallery illustrate such activities as bathing, nursing, and soothing. The common use of wet nurses was increasingly discouraged, not only by male philosophers and medical doctors, but also by an emerging feminist movement. As with today’s breastfeeding advocacy, mothers in the 19th century were taught the benefits of nursing, both in terms of public health but also as a means of fostering healthy emotional and physical bonds with their children. Works in this gallery by Mary Cassatt, Lovis Corinth, Helen Hyde, and Édouard Jean Vuillard, among others, celebrate tender interactions between mothers and their young children.

— Exhibition text panel, Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy, June 22–September 29, 2013, Galleries 124–127.




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