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I have written twice about the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt—once in a book about Cassatt's fellow impressionist Berthe Morisot and a second time in a book about the visual history of childhood. Although my comments on Cassatt did not contradict each other at all, they did not exactly agree either. Distance now makes it obvious that I was asking different kinds of questions and therefore reaching different answers. Cassatt in the context of a monograph is not the same as Cassatt in the context of cultural history. Neither approach yields truer or better results. Each approach yields accurate answers in its own way. The only problem is confusing approaches. And however initially perturbing the disparity between Cassatt-the-singular-artist and Cassatt-within-history might be, that disparity is among Cassatt's most valuable lessons.

I wrote both comments about Cassatt's pictures of mothers and children. After about 1890, Cassatt turned away from the variety of domestic feminine themes she had represented and began to concentrate on what was already in her lifetime called the Modern Madonna. Cassatt produced dozens, if not hundreds, of Modern Madonnas, in the form of oils, pastels, and prints. These pictures, previously dismissed for their sentimentality, became in the 1990s the newest topic of the most original Cassatt scholarship. In 1993, Harriet Chessman published

an important essay describing the mother-child pictures as erotic. The eros, Chessman argued, was the mother's: “the child offers a safe figure for the mother's more hidden erotic life.”[1] The freshest part of Griselda Pollock's latest work on Cassatt is devoted to a psychoanalysis of Cassatt's late work.[2] Judith Barter, in her fundamental essay for the recent major Cassatt exhibition catalogue, has shown how the late work fits into a social and legal redefinition of child welfare, as well as of maternal rights and responsibilities.[3] Restating a decade of academic work with a masculine twist, Adam Gopnik wrote in 1999 for the New Yorker that Cassatt's most original contribution to the history of art was giving form to “the nearly adulterous, exhausting love with which middle-class women have come to address their babies.”[4]


I first considered Cassatt's mother-child pictures in a 1992 book on Berthe Morisot's images of women (which repeated what I had said in a 1988 doctoral dissertation on Morisot). The key sentence emphasized that “the difference between Cassatt's images of maternity and other modern Madonnas is that they do offer women…[a]…possibility of visual pleasure.”[5] It is the key sentence not only because it deals with pleasure but also because it distinguishes Cassatt's pictures from all other representations of the same subject. I was using Cassatt to get from countless contemporary pictures of mothers and children to Morisot's unique treatment of that subject. Cassatt was a term-inbetween: a transition from the many to the one. I was factoring in Cassatt's artistic singularity only in order to move from pictures not remarkable because of their style to Morisot's singularity. The subject matter of all the pictures I was discussing had already been dealt with as a subject before I got to Cassatt. My monographic purpose had pushed me to define Cassatt's mother-child pictures in terms of their style.

Cassatt's style turns a conventional subject into erotic form. Unlike any of her contemporaries, Cassatt made the experience of tiny children's bodies a visceral pleasure, both for the mothers represented within her pictures and for us, the viewers of the pictures (Figure 11). By representing touch for our sight, Cassatt engages us in the joys of infant flesh.


11. Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, ca. 1900, pastel

[Full Size]

More than other pictures of the same subject—by Morisot, say, or by the great illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith (Figure 12)—Cassatt's pictures join the forms of mother and child. The integrity of the individual body, which we could also call its isolation, is replaced by a formal fiction of merged bodies. In virtually all of Cassatt's pictures, neither the mother's body nor the child's has its own boundary, its own space. Instead, the figures of mother and child share a border. Mimetically, we


12. Jessie Willcox Smith, First the Infant in Its Mother's Arms, 1908, pen and ink drawing

[Full Size]

understand that the mother clasps the baby and that the older child sits or stands pressed against his or her mother. Formally, we see how Cassatt reinforces the impression of unity by turning two figures into one shape. Often the child's figure eddies only slightly beyond the almost enclosing edges of the mother. The pretext is that the children are young, and young children are often embraced by their mothers. But is iconography cause or effect here? Perhaps Cassatt's visual concept of maternity is a physical bond, and therefore the children she represents must be not so much children as babies.

Cassatt's pictures are filled with embraces. Everything extraneous to the physical contact between mothers' and children's bodies has been eliminated. Mother and child virtually never gaze toward anyone or anything except each other, so they are engaged only in their mutual absorption. Form, too, pulls away from any outside world, swelling inward. Setting, objects, and actions are incidental, absent, subordinated, or formal versions of enclosure, echoing the containment of the child's form.[6] Replete with the substance of flesh, Cassatt's pictures are organized both two- and three-dimensionally around axes of touch. Bodies caress, kiss, fondle, hug, and stroke. Limbs and fingers, throats and cheeks, feet, hands, and lips turn toward each other, their forms gathering. Color, line, and illusions of space embrace to represent mothers and children.

We enjoy Cassatt's children because their mothers enjoy them. Of course the mothers and children are enjoying each other within the pictures. The pleasure is mutual, yet not quite reciprocal. It is always the children who wear little or no clothing, never the mothers. Even by the decorous standards of Cassatt's time, her women are covered and concealed. Had she wanted to, Cassatt could have undressed her adult female figures, licensed, like other artists, by the intimate domesticity of her subject. Moreover, the figures of the mothers are never shown beyond where they are in contact with their children. It is quite rare for the mother's entire body to be seen, and when it is, as for instance in The Bath (Chicago Art Institute), in which a mother bends forward to wash her child's foot, Cassatt has found some trick to reconcile adult and child body lengths. Much more often, the image ends at the mother's lap. Cassatt's choices declare whose bodies are the erotic objects: whose bodies are at once subjects and objects. If we were looking at pictures of naked adult women and clothed adult men, however interlaced, we would be quick to understand the implications of being clothed or unclothed. Nudity is being presented to us, the viewers. The

babies' pleasure in their mothers, however convincing, acts not to turn their mothers into objects of desire but rather to cue viewers. Like all the countless adult female nudes who signal their sanction of our gaze, Cassatt's babies invite our pleasure by being happy themselves.

By enjoying their children's bodies so nakedly, Cassatt's mothers urge us to do the same, vicariously and visually. Identifying with the mother offers the most rewards. We could also identify with the babies, but we would not be getting the sight of bodies from that position, and sight is what pictures provide best. It is surprising, confusing perhaps, to see infant rather than adult bodies. It should be surprising. Cassatt is the only nineteenth-century artist I have encountered who gives us such access to the pleasures a mother feels in her child's body.

Why can I say that we are identifying with a mother's pleasure rather than a woman's? An iconography of maternity inculcated by centuries of Madonna and Child images is the easy answer. Another answer, equally important, is the issue of the child's gender. In some of Cassatt's pictures, the sex of the child is identifiable. But more often, it is not. When it is, it is about as often female as it is male (breaking with Madonna and Child precedent). In Cassatt's pictures, I would argue, sex is not an issue because the child is a generic child, not a gendered boy or girl.[7] The experience conveyed is therefore not so much the pleasure of one person in the sex of another as pleasure in a child because it is a child. Historically, that kind of pleasure has been ascribed to mothers—though hypothetically it could be experienced by anyone. It is a pleasure born of the intimate routine daily care that an infant body requires merely to survive, let alone to thrive—a pleasure that Cassatt cunningly winnows out from the shit, piss, vomit, screams, feedings, laundry, tedium, and other grim realities that actually go along with infant care. The pleasure taken could therefore be called erotic or sexual, but only with the caveat that sexuality must be understood more broadly than usual.

Cassatt's brilliant compositions can be seen in any reproduction. When her works are actually seen, however, medium and color assert their primacy. Cassatt has always been known as the impressionist who most conservatively retained illusions of bodily integrity. While other impressionists were accused of scattering the body in calligraphic excess or rotting the body with putrid color, Cassatt was praised even by cautious critics for the fresh wholesomeness of her figures. So Cassatt's use of oil or pastel in her mother-child pictures is unexpected. True, an

initial glance provides a reassuring sense of rosy roundness. But the longer one looks, the more dazzlingly abstract Cassatt's technique appears. The apparently blushing faces and limbs are in fact created out of zipping greens and meandering blues, smudges of lilac and brown hatching. The marks of Cassatt's hand are everywhere on the canvas or paper surface to be noticed and compared. And in her pastels, the effect is especially strong, as the crayon leaves its unmistakable trail, color imitating light but also leaving a velvet tactile trace. The effect of two bodies united into one is infinitely reinforced by the distribution of identical pure colors between the two ostensibly separate bodies. In many of Cassatt's mother-child pictures, color dissolves difference. What had seemed to be an edge between mother and child turns out to be a zone of shared radiance, a blue mark gliding back and forth between the two, returning flesh to the flesh from which it came.

The degree of pleasure Cassatt provides is given through the plenitude and self-sufficiency of form. Although the subject of the mother-child pictures was guaranteed by social convention to be satisfying, the coherence and the autonomy of her style make her pictures passionate rather than sentimental. Just as fantasy is an escape from reality, Cassatt's maternal pleasure is form's escape from subject matter. The passion is in what formally exceeds the subject. Call it ecstasy, call it bliss. Psychoanalysis, prodded by the subject of the pictures, would name the ecstasy a regression to the prelinguistic, the pre-Oedipal. The great French poststructuralist critic Julia Kristeva could see the effulgence of form slipping out from under language in Bellini's Renaissance Madonnas, but not in Cassatt's mother-child pictures.[8] Was Cassatt too clumsily American, too suspiciously feminist, or simply too powerful to bear? The pious would call the ecstasy grace, a state of being in which communion releases the individual from its limits. A mother might simply call it love.


I next considered Cassatt's mother-child pictures in the context of a book on the visualization of childhood. I was trying to understand how a currently axiomatic assumption of children's absolute innocence had been translated into images that would eventually become the most credible and ubiquitous proofs of that innocence. I did not start with any one author, or a medium, but instead with a question: How has childhood been visualized in modern times? Whatever pictures in

whatever medium by whichever artist—or nonartist—answered that question would be part of the book's argument. I did not care if the pictures were “good” or “bad,” “great” or “trivial,” as long as they answered the question. As far as Cassatt was concerned, the key sentence this time was: “Artists like Stephens, Cassatt, and Potter Vonnoh reinvigorated the subject formally, finding new devices to express the beauty of the innocent child body and the maternal love it inspired.”[9]

Who, Cassatt, and who? My issue-driven project made me realize how little great artists could matter to visual history. At the beginning of the modern history of childhood, in the eighteenth century, painters as eminent and influential as Sir Joshua Reynolds were also the most important innovators in the visualization of childhood. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the dominant role in shaping cultural concepts of childhood had passed to genre painting, a type of painting whose formal mediocrity has kept it outside an art historical canon based on aesthetics. By 1890, when Cassatt and Morisot both began to concentrate on the subject of mothers and children, no painting of any sort could control or alter the history of childhood. Quite simply, the social scope of the issue was much broader than the audience for modernist painting. Only image makers whose work was repeatedly reproduced on a mass scale could hope to affect an entire culture. Alice Barber Stephens (1858–1932) and Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955), along with others like Jessie Willcox Smith, made childhood innocence a cultural axiom through their commercial work for magazines, advertisements, and various forms of illustration, work consumed by millions of viewers. The commercial and amateur photographs of children that dominated the twentieth century looked back to those commercial artists, not to great painters. Nothing about Cassatt's subject matter was any more original, feminist, or modern than the pictures of mothers and children by women like Stephens, Vonnoh, and Smith, not to mention innumerable reproductions, interpretations, and adaptations of premodern religious Madonnas. Cassatt's pictures are relevant to the history of childhood inasmuch as they are ordinary. (Hence the total irrelevance of Morisot's mother-child pictures, which are much more radical than Cassatt's at the level of subject matter.)

It is of course terribly tempting to reinsert what we can now see in Cassatt's later work back into history. We would like to imagine Cassatt's formal passion radically altering the sentimental history of maternity we have inherited. Our vision of Cassatt, however, belongs to

our time. If even the most ardent admirers of Cassatt's work did not articulate the power of her mother-child pictures until the 1990s, it is because the cultural conditions of the past made such articulation impossible, perhaps even unthinkable. We also forget how the impact of Cassatt's work has benefited over time from a mass reproduction it was not intended for. If Cassatt's mother-child pictures had appeared on as many posters, refrigerator magnets, and mousepads in her lifetime as they have since then, history might have been different.

My historical project made me confront how much Cassatt's choice of subject had been determined by a factor that had nothing to do with her style or her innate genius. I wrote: “Feminine and commercial pressures on women's work were strong enough to be felt by even the most successful fine artists, as evidenced by the career of arguably America's finest late nineteenth-century woman painter, Mary Cassatt.” Most of the very popular and influential images of childhood made since the late nineteenth century have been the work of women. Women were forced to produce pictures of childhood for commercial markets because of their gender. Schools tracked them, editors commissioned them, critics neglected them, patrons paid them. They spent their entire careers on childhood, as if they had never contemplated a viable alternative. The ambient power of culture could, however, overtake even someone successfully headed in another direction. Cassatt refused to become a mother biologically and roamed among various—admittedly feminine—subjects until about 1890, when, despite professional experience, critical acclaim, and financial security, she succumbed to the maternal imperative. In the end, even Cassatt obeyed a historical pattern. History swept the obdurate node of her genius along in its flow.

Cassatt's stylistic meanings may have been revolutionary, but the historical pattern within which they were embedded was politically and culturally conservative. As a subject, maternity gave women new professionally artistic possibilities (Stephens, Vonnoh, Smith, and many others were highly successful by many measures) and it also gave women new power as consumers of images. Yet it hardly needs to be said that any association of women with maternity, however new, would inevitably reinforce traditional definitions of femininity. Cassatt was able to create pleasure out of maternity, but she nevertheless linked pleasure to maternity. Form created pleasure, but subject matter harnessed pleasure. Here we can come back to Cassatt's exhilarating distillation

of her subject from another point of view. Cassatt removed maternal pleasure from any distraction, loosing it from any social restraint. The relationship between mother and baby, according to Cassatt, exists in a world unto itself; it does not belong within any shared or active or collective or political or social world. Yet that freedom from the material world is itself a price to be paid. In Cassatt's vision, maternal pleasure is ours on the condition that we relinquish everything else. The mother who is absorbed in her pleasure, in her fantasy of pleasure, cannot be a part of and act in the real world.

So we are faced with a contradiction. Cassatt was revolutionary and Cassatt was conservative. Cassatt was banal and Cassatt was a genius. Cassatt is crucial to a history of art and marginal to a history of culture that includes art. The contradiction cannot be resolved. One way of looking at Cassatt cannot be reduced to the other.

And why should it be? The study of an individual artist will always be a sure way to yield intellectually sustained and emotionally inspirational formal analysis. In a modern world in which people strive to be individuals, one person's style forces attention to what makes one set of forms different from any other set. It forces precision and articulation. When organized chronologically, it becomes a kind of history, a very specific history of one mode of visual representation. If the analysis of style demands recognition of an object's condition, cultural history demands recognition of its effect. What an art object is needs to be described and judged on formal terms. How and why art objects have mattered to anyone requires analysis of more than what an object is. Cultural analysis requires its own precision, locating changes in meaning over time and from one audience to another, situating discrepancies between authorial intention and reception, between formal quality and cultural importance. The two approaches can complement each other, but they will not necessarily agree. I believe that in practice they depend on each other, but in a theoretical way they cannot be substituted for each other. They elicit different skills, different sources, and different methods—which is why the formalist fear of what is often called “visual culture” studies is absurdly defensive. What I would prefer to call more simply a historical (as opposed to the subset “art historical”) approach will not render formal analysis useless. It can never replace formal analysis and the study of individual singularity. But history does bring another aspect to the study of

images that formal analysis and monographic subjects will never accurately produce.

Do we really need art to be consistent? Are we obliged to have one master method, one master narrative, one answer to all questions? The work of Mary Cassatt bids me say no.


1. Harriet Chessman, “Mary Cassatt and the Maternal Body,” in American Iconology, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993), 239–59. [BACK]

2. Griselda Pollock, Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998), and Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art's Histories (New York: Routledge, 1999). [BACK]

3. Judith Barter, Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago and Harry N. Abrams, 1998). [BACK]

4. Adam Gopnik, “Cassatt's Children,” New Yorker, March 22, 1999, 114–20. [BACK]

5. Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot's Images of Women (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 218–20. [BACK]

6. In one picture, for instance, in which a mother is sewing, and her daughter—who may be as old as six or seven—looks out at us, the child is still contained within her mother's pyramidal definition of space, and most of the picture's surface area is dedicated to the contact zone between child's body and mother's. Or look closely at the famous Cassatt in which a mother and child together hold a hand mirror in which both the child and we see an image of the child alone. In that hand mirror, we see nothing but the child's face, but in another mirror behind we see both mother and child, and, once again, the overwhelming share of the picture surface is devoted to contact between the child's body and its mother's—in imagined space, and even more so on the picture's surface. [BACK]

7. Viewers (including myself) have often assumed, for instance, that in the famous National Gallery picture of the child holding a mirror the child is a girl. But on close examination the genitals of the child are not clear, and the child looks identical to a child in another Cassatt picture who also has shoulderlength blond hair and bangs and yet also clearly has a penis. [BACK]

8. Julia Kristeva, “Motherhood According to Bellini,” in Desire in Language, ed. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980). [BACK]

9. Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 57–60. [BACK]

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