How to Read Paintings: The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt

An intimate portrait by an American female Impressionist

Christopher P Jones
Jan 18 · 5 min read
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The Child’s Bath (1893) by Mary Cassatt. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago (open access)

The Child’s Bath shows a small child propped up on a woman’s lap — with the child’s feet being bathed in a bowl of water. One senses that the water is not cold but perhaps lukewarm so as not to sting the child’s toes.

The scene takes place within what could be a bedroom, with an olive-green chest of drawers and floral papered walls behind them. The carpet is made up of various shades of brown and red — perhaps it is a Persian rug. The water jug at the front of the painting, is the closest object to the viewer.

Against this backdrop, the pattern of the woman’s dress is vivid: from neck to toe, bold lilac, green and white stripes create a complex rhythm of lines that gently cascade down the image. The same colours of the dress are repeated in the bowl of water and even in the skin tones of the child’s legs.

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Detail of ‘The Child’s Bath’ (1893) by Mary Cassatt. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago. Image source The Art Institute of Chicago (open access)

How does one read a painting like this? The first thing that strikes me about this painting — by the artist Mary Cassatt — is the angle of the viewer’s gaze. We look upon the scene from above, with the portrait not necessarily making their faces very clear but instead the task they are occupied with.

Undoubtedly, it is a tender image. We are being shown an intimate moment, a glimpse into a loving relationship expressed through the act of caring. The way the two figures touch heads at the temple, and how this connection is echoed in the way the mother holds the child’s foot, is a detail that the artist has painted most deliberately.

Mary Cassatt is an interesting figure in art, not only for what she painted but because of what she represents to historians. As a painter of domestic scenes and close-knit family portraits, her subject matter focused predominantly on the lives of women, paying particular attention to the intimate bonds between women and children.

In these subject matters, historians have seen Cassatt as both an consummate artist and a subject of chauvinistic oppression. For whilst Cassatt enjoyed artistic acclaim alongside other Impressionist painters, her subjects are quite distinct. Many (male) Impressionist painters are noted for having painted en Plein air — outdoors — in public spaces like parks, rivers and city streets. In contrast, Cassatt’s paintings are most often indoors, conforming to the restrictions placed on women’s free access to public spaces and to real-life models.

On the other hand, Cassatt is seen as an outstanding example of personal tenacity: in a field dominated by men she had the strength of character to go against her family’s wishes and move to Paris, where she exhibited alongside the likes of Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.

Cassatt therefore stands at something of a crossroads, representing to historians both a self-determining figure and also someone who was curtailed by society’s conventions. It’s not a contradiction to see both of these facts as true — in fact, it provides a good starting point to see how Cassatt negotiated her way as an independent artist.

Mary Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh in the United States into an upper-middle-class family. Her father was a stockbroker and her mother came from an established banking family. Her family’s wealth meant she had a privileged upbringing: as a child, she spent five years touring European capitals, from Rome to Madrid. She was well-educated, well-travelled and spoke three languages.

She went to and from Paris several times, and was deeply drawn to the artistic scene she found there. She eventually settled in Paris in 1874 when she was thirty. She became friends with Edgar Degas, and under his influence began to exhibit with the Impressionists after several of her paintings were rejected by the Salon, the most sought-after exhibition in Paris.

It was in the second half of the 1870s that Cassatt began to move towards a style that she could call her own. Not only did she begin placing her figures in a context — such as a theatre box, a garden or a bedroom — but her eye seemed to have moved away from formal portraiture and towards a more realistic, contemporary style of depiction.

Painting background as well as foreground detail meant that many interesting things began to happen in her paintings. Learning from other Impressionist painters, her work took on a sense of the “here and now” — not merely a portrait in an abstract setting but a play of textures and lighting effects that could add heightened levels of energy to the work.

Cassatt soon found her great strength as a painter, which was the ability to paint people so that they felt within touching distance of the viewer. Exemplified in The Child’s Bath, figures in her paintings are nearly always close-at-hand: we can almost hear the whispered conversation between the adult and child, and the trickle of the water as the mother’s hand moves through the basin.

With foreground and background elements working together, Cassatt was also able to explore the dialogue between colours and patterns, and how overlapping forms could create complex visual vibrations. Like many artists of her generations, Cassatt was drawn to Japanese woodblock prints, for their vivid contrasts and asymmetrical compositions.

All of these qualities are found in The Child’s Bath. The very real character of the two figures is made all the more palpable by the lack of formality in the work. None of it is forced. We look upon them as if peering through a half-opened door. At the same time, the two figures don’t show any awareness of being painted. They are completely absorbed by the occupation of washing the child’s feet and share that absorption between them.

Paintings like this, and others like them from Cassatt’s career, make the best of the spontaneous, fleeting mode of Impressionism. Cassatt remains an appealing artist in the present day, for she represents someone who not only negotiated her way as an independent woman in late 19th century Paris, she also communicates an uncompromising steadfastness to paint the subjects that mattered to her most.

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My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, novelist and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and other e-reader devices).

Read more about my writing at my website.

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