Cassatt, The Child’s Bath

By Grover Koelpin 1 comment

(lively music) Beth: Looking at this
painting by Mary Cassatt, called The Child’s Bath, at
the Art Institute of Chicago, reminds me of how little
we see this subject in art history of a mother and a daughter and the intimacy that they share. We do see a mother and child. Steven: Quite a bit. That would be the Madonna
and the young Christ, but that’s a spiritual image. By the time we get to
the late 19th Century, that’s a much less
common image than it was during the Renaissance or the Baroque. Beth: There’s an intimacy here that feels so familiar to me, and it
brings back memories of holding my own daughter on my lap. Steven: I’m really
struck by these passages where the tactile experience of these figures seems just overwhelming. Look at the way in which
the mother seems to press against the top of the foot
as it’s held from below, and look at the way
the child, in response, seems to replicate the
pressure that the mother is applying as she presses
into her own thigh. Beth: Then there’s this
lovely way that the child seems a little bit
trepidatious, and leans back. And the part that I like
best is the way that the mother seems to be speaking to her. Mouth is slightly opened,
and she seems to be maybe telling her a story, or
saying something reassuring. Steven: I love the way that
the child is also sort of bracing herself against her mother’s knee. Beth: And her mother puts her left arm around the child to steady her. There’s just wonderful attention to the child’s body here. Steven: One of the aspects of the painting that is so convincing is the way in which their attention is so
focused on each other, and, in a sense, we’re
drawn into that experience. They’re looking down at the basin pretty much at the same angle that Mary Cassatt has
placed our perspective. Beth: We really look sharply down at these figures in this unusual angle. It’s something that Degas
also employed in an effort to show things in the way that
we might really see them, so that instead of something looking very composed, the way it normally does, for example in an academic painting, we look at things from
rather unexpected angles, the way we do in real life. Steven: Look for instance
at the foreshortened faces. That’s the kind of distortion that a painter would generally try to avoid. But perhaps the most stark
distortion takes place in the relationship between
the lips of the basin, where the child’s feet are, and the vase at the lower right. It’s as if they’re seen
from different perspectives. Beth: It’s incredibly compressed. We can’t see how much space there is of the room behind them. There’s a sense of patterning throughout that really flattens the space that might remind us of Japanese prints. It’s just really pleasurable to look at, but it’s also so obviously
a tour de force of painting by this artist, and I’m
really grateful that she did a painting of a mother and child. It’s just lovely to see. (lively music)

1 Comment


Sep 9, 2016, 6:11 pm Reply

I find it interesting that you say that the Modonna and Child image is fading by the time this painting was done. The first thing I noticed when I first saw this painting is how it combines the Modonna and Child image with the notion of Christ washing the disciples' feet. I find the intimacy of this painting to be also spiritual, and that seems to me to be part of its strength. I say this, not to call you out, but to confirm: Am I correct or missing something?

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