Baby John Nursing, which captures the tenderness and mutual bond of a young woman and her infant, is exemplary of the confident yet sensitive manner in which Mary Cassatt executed her mature pastels. While Cassatt's work in the 1870s had reflected her interest in the experience of modern women in Parisian society, in the 1880s her emphasis began to shift from the public to the private domains of women's lives, and thus to the quiet, intimate moments spent within the domestic realm. Depictions of motherhood, largely comprised of simple, daily interactions between mothers and their children, were a natural outcome of Cassatt's movement into the private sphere, as these shared moments played a significant role in women's experience of modern life.
Nowhere is Cassatt's gift for drawing more evident than in her beautiful pastels of this subject, intimate compositions in which the strong maternal bond is often conveyed through the subtle tilt of a head or curve of an arm. Baby John Nursing manifests Cassatt's mastery of the pastel medium as well as of color and composition. Pastel provides the work a sense of modernity and immediacy not present in the artist's more studied oil paintings and gives the sense of capturing a fleeting, intimate moment. She enhances her subject, closely cropping the composition and setting mother and child against a plain background so as not to create any visual distractions that would detract from the relationship between the figures. Within this framework Cassatt adeptly blends rich, gestural strokes of cream, pinks and blues to capture a warm, private moment and to convey the maternal bond as a woman looks lovingly at her nursing child, protectively cradling him in her lap.
In pastels such as Baby John Nursing, Cassatt sought to capture, celebrate and elevate the intimate, hidden scenes of women's domestic life. Her sophisticated approach to the subject of motherhood was praised and distinguished her from her contemporaries. "She saw herself as a standard-bearer for the new freedom in art that had been won by the Impressionists, and was seen that way by others." (N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1994, p. 267) Cassatt's ability to convey the inimitable tenderness often present in a mother's interaction with her children while creating paintings that are simultaneously modern and traditional instills masterworks such as Baby John Nursing with a timeless appeal.
This pastel will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.