The Child's Caress, c. 1890–91

View all works from this time period.

Works mentioned in this section:
The Child's Caress
Baby's First Caress
Mural of "Modern Woman"
Nude Baby Reaching for an Apple
In the Garden
The Family

Post-Impressionism

After turning her attention to family matters in 1887, Cassatt returned to work in 1888 by creating drypoints; her works in this medium done over the next few years convey remarkable presence with a great economy of means.

Without the Impressionist exhibitions as an outlet for her pictures, she began to exhibit with the Society of Peintres-graveurs, which was organized during the general printmaking revival of the late 1880s.

Critics found her prints of this period to display the linearity of the same Italian “primitives” they had cited in relation to her 1881 Impressionist pictures; her sensitive draughtsmanship and compositional types were also compared to those of Raphael, whose naturalistic Madonna and Child imagery had only recently come to the fore among art historians (his history paintings had been preferred until this era).

Inspired by an enormous exhibition of Japanese graphic arts held in Paris in 1890, Cassatt turned to color printmaking and made the “Set of Ten” color prints (1890–91) that were, from the moment of their creation, recognized among the greatest achievements of Western graphic arts.

Given her first one-person exhibition by Durand-Ruel in 1891, Cassatt showed the “Set of Ten,” as well as two paintings (see The Child’s Caress) and two pastels (see Baby’s First Caress) that were explicitly linked by critics to the idea of a “modern ‘holy family’” in this period of Catholic revival.

Despite Cassatt’s interest in Old Master Madonna and Child imagery, her works were not intended to relay a religious message, nor were they understood that way; rather, her mother and child pictures were frequently interpreted as embodying the “religion of humanity” which placed the child at its center, as emblematic of the “health and sanity” that were considered to be particularly American traits, in contrast to the decadence of European society.

Her paintings and pastels of this period recall not only the linearity of the “primitive” painters but also the flattening and simplification found in fifteenth-century Florentine bas reliefs by sculptors such as della Robbia and da Settignano.

Her interest in physiognomics asserted itself again in this era, and critics lauded her for capturing the gestures and non-verbal forms of communication shared between mother and child; her skill in this respect was credited mainly to her gender.

In 1892, Cassatt was commissioned to create a 14-x-58-ft. mural depicting “Modern Woman” for the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago.

Cassatt’s attempt at a “modern allegory,” by which she sought to celebrate women in their pursuit of knowledge and the arts through an all-female variant on the “Garden of Eden” story, was generally disliked by critics, who also objected to its Japanese-inspired palette and lack of atmospheric perspective.

Cassatt is said to have commissioned couture dresses for her models in this era.

In 1892 and 1893, Cassatt also created the most “Post-Impressionist” of her works, many of them closely related to the theme and aesthetic of the mural and employing rich or high-key color.

Paintings such as Nude Baby Reaching for an Apple and pastels like In the Garden share an interest in decorative qualities such as flattened forms, the contrast of pattern-on-pattern, and arabesque shapes, qualities she had already explored in the “Set of Ten” color prints.

Other works, like The Family also rework traditional Madonna and Child imagery, in this case, that of Raphael. Though many of Cassatt’s formal strategies of the period parallel those of the Nabis, she never dissolved her female figures into their environments to the same (sometimes disturbing) degree as these male artists.

In 1890, Durand-Ruel began to buy Cassatt’s work again and became her exclusive dealer for the next decade. Cassatt’s first “retrospective” exhibition was held at Durand-Ruel, Paris, in 1893, though it was not truly a retrospective because it included no Salon-era works (which were mainly in the collections of relatives in the U.S.); 21 of the 31 original works on view were already sold.

In the catalogue for the exhibition, Cassatt was explicitly defined as a painter of “Woman and Child.”

On the whole, critics believed that Cassatt had taken too much inspiration from her colleagues (Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro) and from the Japanese, and that she did not exhibit enough originality.

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