Cassatt's "Mother and Child, 1902" is a rich, loving portrait. Both mother and child, at first glance, appear dreamy-eyed and content upon the sunflower-yellow sofa, as though, for a moment at least, nothing else exists beside their love. A tender spiritual bond, expressed by the warm embrace, links mother to daughter in strength, not weakness or vulnerability.
One wonders what provoked the gesture -- it seems spontaneous, as if the little girl had run into her mother's open arms, grasped her closely, rested her cheek upon her mother's lips in a sign of affection. And yet, underneath their calm exteriors is a seriousness, a solemnity, as if the child's presence is a comfort to her mother, who appears somewhat pensive, even a little sad. Her little daughter's expression indicates a sensitivity to her mother's feelings. But peace does predominate in the portrait, as if no subtle inharmony that might be lurking in their innermost thoughts could ever separate the two, nor mar the contentment of their close relationship.
As her daughter presses close, the mother's upright position supports the child. An atmosphere of peace and security surrounds the two, as if fear, anger , resentment could have no power.
This portrait raises many questions -- what time of day is it? What activities have taken place up to this point, and what will happen when the two go their separate ways? What thoughts are actually running through their minds? Is there a profound silence surrounding the two, one in which no words are necessary? There is a room for someone else on the couch -- a friend, a father, a brother or sister?
Their surroundings seem simple enough, yet there is a feeling of elegant living, while the tree that appears through the window is in full bloom, suggesting newness and revitalization.
Rather ironically, Cassatt was neither a wife nor mother herself, and yet she vividly exhibits the qualities of motherhood in her paintings -- evidence that a woman does not need to have a child of her own in order to express motherly characteristics. She shows appreciation for the warmth and sense of well-being that can develop within a mother-child relationship, without an excessive display of sentimentality and flimsy emotion. Maternal love, as evidenced in Cassatt's many other mother and child paintings as well, is never guilty of dullness or obscurity. She is saying a child's own feeling for life is influenced by the mother's expression of inner strength and sense of self-worth, which she nurtures in her offspring.
The devotion Cassatt had to her own mother's memory has been credited as a strong influence for much of the feeling expressed in her mother-child portraits , and her niece Ellen Mary, to whom she always remained close, was, as a child, the subject of delightful Cassatt pastels reflecting variations of baby expression and mood.
Cassatt's unique exploration of motherhood on canvas is as essential, as vibrant, as real-life relationships themselves are. And her work excludes no one -- all may enjoy the qualities of motherhood through her portraiture, in which she captures, with intense feeling, the fullness of family life.