Mary Cassatt
American, 1844–1926
The Child’s Bath

Oil on canvas
100.3 x 66.1 cm (39 1/2 x 26 in. )
Signed lower left: "Mary Cassatt"
Robert A. Waller Fund, 1910.2

Mary Cassatt was the only American to exhibit with the original Impressionist group. Like her friend Degas, she was a highly skilled draftsman who preferred unposed, asymmetrical compositions. In The Child's Bath, the circular shapes of the figures’ heads, the basin, and the pitcher as well as the striped pattern of the woman’s dress animate the portrait of a woman bathing a child. Cassatt’s unusual vantage point (from above) and her choice of a female subject show her interest in Japanese woodblock prints, which had become extremely popular in France at the time.

The theme of women caring for children appeared frequently in Cassatt’s art during and after the 1880s. In rendering this subject, the artist relied on keen observation rather than idealization, yet still portraying great intimacy. The woman’s gestures—one firm hand securing the child in her lap, the other gently caressing its small foot—are both natural and emblematic, communicating her tender concern for the child’s well-being. The two figures gaze in the same direction, looking together at their paired reflection in the basin of water.

The many paintings, pastels, and prints in which Cassatt depicted children being bathed, dressed, read to, held, or nursed reflect the most advanced 19th-century ideas about raising children. After 1870, French scientists and physicians encouraged mothers (instead of wet-nurses and nannies) to care for their children and suggested modern approaches to health and personal hygiene, including regular bathing. In the face of several cholera epidemics in the mid-1880s, bathing was encouraged not only as a remedy for body odors but also as a preventative measure against disease.