By the time Mary Cassatt exhibited this painting at the eighth and final impressionist exhibition in 1886, her reputation as a tender but unsentimental painter of mothers and children had been well established.
Cassatt’s focus on a limited range of subjects allowed her to experiment with both the formal elements and painterly qualities of a composition. Children Playing on the Beach reflects in particular Cassatt’s interest in Japanese prints. By tightly cropping the scene, tilting the picture plane forward, and reducing the number of objects in the background, she draws attention to the girls digging in the sand. Absorbed in their activity, they embody the naturalism then prevalent in both art and literature.
This depiction of a coastal setting—a rarity for Cassatt—also conveys a sense of spontaneity and freshness. Various shades of blue dominate the palette while accents of white convey sunlight bouncing off the girls’ dresses, hats, and pails. In the foreground form is built through color and line, but the background is reduced to its essential elements through a series of thinly painted scumbles applied with a nearly dry brush. Cassatt also intentionally leaves areas of the priming layer exposed, suggesting to the viewer that she was working quickly to capture a passing moment in these children’s lives.
lower right: Mary Cassatt
M. Portier; sold 4 April 1899 to (Durand-Ruel, Paris); sold 12 March 1910 to M. Lanquety; by inheritance to his godson, Pierre Marbeau. (Sam Salz, Inc., New York); sold 5 March 1965 to Ailsa Mellon Bruce; bequest 1970 to NGA.
- La 8me Exposition de Peinture [Eighth Impressionist Exhibition], Paris, 1886, no. 11.
- Modern French Paintings, Manchester City Art Gallery, 1907-1908, no.71, as Children Playing on the Shore.
- French Paintings from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon and Mrs. Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, no. 120, repro
- Mary Cassatt 1844-1926, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.,1970, no. 33, repro.
- Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; University Art Museum, University of Texas, Austin; Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Brooklyn Museum, 1976-1977, no. 91, repro.
- Solitude: Inner Visions in American Art, Terra Museum of American Art, Evanston, 1982, no. 5, repro.
- Capolavori Impressionisti dei Musei Americani, Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, 1986-1987, no. 2, repro.
- The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, no. 139, repro.
- Impressionisti della National Gallery of Art di Washington, Ala Napoleonica e Museo Correr, Venice, and Palazzo Reale, Milan, 1989, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Französische Impressionisten und ihre Wegbereiter aus der National Gallery of Art, Washington und dem Cincinnati Art Museum, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 1990, no. 55, repro.
- From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metroplitan Museum of Art, New York, National Gallery of Greece, Athens, 1992-1993, no. 58, repro.
- Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, The Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-1999, no. 47, repro., as Children on the Shore.
- Impressionists by the Sea, Royal Academy of Arts, London; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, 2007-2008, no. 69, repro.
- Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The National Art Center, Tokyo; Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, 2011, no. 6, repro.
- Un été au bord de l'eau: Loisirs et impressionnisme, Muée des Beaux-Arts, Caen, 2012-2013, no. 10, repro.
- American Impressionism: A New Vision, 1880-1900, Musée des impressionnismes Giverny, Giverny; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2014 - 2015, no. p. 57.
- Young, Mahonri Sharp. "The Mellon Collections: The Great Years of French Painting." Apollo 83 (June 1966): 433, repro.
- Breeskin, Adelyn Dohme. Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors, and Drawings. Washington, 1970: no. 131.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 33, repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 137, 139.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 564, no. 862, color repro., as Two Children at the Seashore.
- Coman, Florence E. Joie de Vivre: French Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1991: no. 22, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 39, repro.