About This Artwork

Mary Cassatt
American, 1844-1926

Mother and Child, c. 1900

Pastel on blue-gray wove paper (faded to tan), mounted on board
710 x 585 mm
Signed recto, lower right: "Mary Cassatt"

Bequest of Dr. John Jay Ireland, 1968.81

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.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Sargent, Whistler and Mary Cassatt," January 14-February 25, 1954, pp. 32-33 (ill.), cat. 25, cat. by Frederick Sweet; also traveled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 25-May 23, 1954.

New York, E. and A. Silberman Galleries, "An Exhibition of Paintings for the Benefit of the Research Fund of Art and Archaeology, The Spanish Institute, Inc." October 12-November 1, 1955, p. 41 (ill.), cat. 29.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman," October 10, 1998-January 10, 1999, pp. 308 and 326, cat. 86 (ill.).

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy", June 22-September 29, 2013

Publication History

The Art Institute of Chicago, Paintings in The Art Institute of Chicago, A Catalogue of the Picture Collection (Chicago, 1961), p. 90.

Frederick Sweet, "Paintings and Pastels by Mary Cassatt," The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Studies 2 (1967), p. 44, fig. 11.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Annual Report (1967-1968), p. 26.

Adelyn Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors and Drawings (Washington, D.C., 1970), no. 318 (ill.), as Sleepy Nicolle.

Sarah Webb and Kristen Fredrickson, Singular Women (Berkeley, 2003).

Kathleen Pyne, Modernism and the Feminine Voice,
O'Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle (California, November 2006).

Ownership History

The artist to Ambroise Vollard (1867-939), Paris, 1904 [Chicago 1998; letter from Abris Silberman of July 2, 1953, in curatorial file]; to E. and A. Silberman Galleries, New York [Breeskin 1970]; to Dr. John Jay Ireland, Chicago, July 2, 1953 [letter mentioned above]; bequeathed to the Art Institute, 1968.

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