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Mary Cassatt (artist), Maternal Caress, color drypoint and aquatint on laid paper plate: 36.8 x 26.8 cm (14 1/2 x 10 9/16 in.) sheet: 43.5 x 30.3 cm (17 1/8 x 11 15/16 in.)

Reflections on Mary Cassatt and Mother’s Day

When I curated the Gallery’s exhibition Degas/Cassatt in 2014, I learned that Mary Cassatt—known almost exclusively as the painter of motherhood—was dismissive when the idea of creating Mother’s Day was first proposed in 1913. As a staunch supporter of woman suffrage, she thought granting women the right to vote was a far more pressing issue than a single day celebrating mothers. Two years later, Mother’s Day was established by an act of Congress. Women had to wait five more years for access to suffrage, much to Cassatt’s disappointment.

Mary Cassatt, Maternal Caress, 1890-1891

Mary Cassatt, Maternal Caress, 1890-1891, color drypoint and aquatint on laid paper, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.255

One of my goals from the outset of Degas/Cassatt was to expand visitors’ understanding of Cassatt by highlighting the more experimental and inventive aspects of her art that were all too often overshadowed by the subjects she depicted. Over the many months I devoted to organizing the exhibition, however, I came to recognize that Cassatt the painter of motherhood and Cassatt the innovative artist weren’t separate at all. You can see it clearly in Maternal Caress, one of only two images of motherhood that I included in Degas/Cassatt. It is a profoundly touching image of maternal devotion. Sweet without being overly sentimental, the print displays such genuine, heartfelt emotion that you can’t help but be drawn to it. At the same time, it is an incredibly daring work. Part of a suite of ten colored prints in drypoint and aquatint that Cassatt produced between 1890 and 1891, Maternal Caress is both visually radical and technically complex. It was groundbreaking at the time, and it remains an important milestone in 19th-century printmaking. Cassatt skillfully found a way to push artistic boundaries, without sacrificing emotional impact. She proves tenderness and audacity can happily cohabit in the work of a truly gifted artist.

To mark the opening of the exhibition, I gave a public lecture where, of course, I shared Cassatt’s opinions of Mother’s Day. After my lecture a long line of people remained for the book signing, which was a pleasant surprise, especially on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. And almost every single person waiting in line? They asked me to dedicate the catalog to their mothers. Whatever Cassatt’s opinions might have been a century ago, there can be no denying that her art remains one of the most enduring celebrations of motherhood we have today.