Study for "Young Mother Sewing" brilliantly captures Mary Cassatt's signature motif: a mother and child in domestic interiors, in rich pastel hues applied in broad, expressive strokes. Here, Cassatt offers us an intimate glimpse into fin-de-siécle home life, as a mother carefully tends to her chore while her child casually leans against her knee. In Cassatt's typical manner, the complexions of both mother and child are effervescently warm and delicately depicted in Cassatt's characteristic vivacious palette. The child, with flushed, rosy cheeks, appears to have just run up to her mother, who continues her work with the focus and attention of a seasoned--albeit, youthful--nurturer.
Study for "Young Mother Sewing" relates to Cassatt's Young Mother Sewing of 1900, which is presently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gifted by famed collector and women's suffragist, Louise Havemeyer. Cassatt and Havemeyer met in Paris in 1874, and continued their friendship until the artist died in 1926. Havemeyer wrote of Young Mother Sewing, "that little child has just thrown herself against her mother's knee, regardless of the result and oblivious to the fact that she could disturb 'her mamma.' And she is quite right..." (as quoted in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Mary Cassatt: Young Mother Sewing," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York, 2000)
Cassatt, accomplished in a range of media, was first introduced to pastel by Impressionist painter Edgar Degas in Paris in the 1870s. Cassatt met Degas after she settled in Paris, and by 1877 he invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists. Pastel provided Cassatt the ability to capture the brilliancy of light and tone in quick, expressive strokes. As Harriet K. Stratis writes, "perhaps pastel--often thought of as painting in the dry manner--provided Cassatt with the opportunity to explore...chromatic relationships with more immediacy than painting, which does not allow for the spontaneous execution she found so desirable...The wide range of newly available pastel colors and colored papers permitted Cassatt to bring the methods of the Old Masters up to date, while putting into practice the chromatic theories of her day." ("Innovation and Tradition in Mary Cassatt's Pastels: A Study of Her Methods and Materials," Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, Chicago, Illinois, 1999, p. 217)
Cassatt masterfully utilizes this new medium in her portrayal of a timeless subject. A classic pyramidal composition focuses the viewer's attention on the mother and child. Thick, velvety diagonals define the mother's dress, guiding our eyes to the soft opulence of the child's visage. Cassatt's skillful command of pastels is most evident in the faces of mother and child. The blues and greens of the background softly blend with the fleshy whites and pinks to create the warm flush of the sitter's faces. By utilizing pastels in such a way, Cassatt hearkens to the Old Masters: "Often criticized by reviewers for looking 'dirty,' the facial skin tones of Cassatt's theatergoers and women with children may have been inspired by the pale-green features of the Madonnas of thirteenth-century Italian masters such as Giotto, Duccio, and their followers." ("Innovation and Tradition in Mary Cassatt's Pastels: A Study of Her Methods and Materials," Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, pp. 216-17)
Cassatt's knowledge of both the avant-garde and the Old Masters served her friend, Louise Havemeyer, well. With her husband, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, Louise would amass one of the most important American art collections of the nineteenth-century. Cassatt would serve as art advisor to the Havemeyers; indeed, Louise Havemeyer often called Cassatt the "godmother" of her collection. (E.E. Hirschler, "Helping "Fine Things Across the Atlantic: Mary Cassatt and Art Collecting in the United States," Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, p. 190)
The Havemeyers added Young Mother Sewing to their impressive collection in 1901, and no doubt the soft brilliancy of Study for "Young Mother Sewing" would have excited Louise. A luminous example of Cassatt's technical skill and passionate interest in mothers with their children, Study for "Young Mother Sewing" is representative of Cassatt's use of modern media in her timeless, intimate portrayal of fin-de-siécle domesticity.
The present pastel is being offered by descendants of the de Sailly family who were close friends and neighbors of the artist in Mesnil-Theribus, France. Cassatt executed pastels of Monsieur O. de Sailly, Miss A. de Sailly and Madame O. de Sailly and her children circa 1909 (A.D. Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors and Drawings, Washington D.C., 1970, p. 202, nos. 553, 554 and 555).