By the first decade of the 20th century, depictions of the simple, daily interactions between mothers and their children had become Cassatt's signature subject. While her work in the 1870s had reflected her interest in the experience of modern women in Parisian society, her emphasis began to shift in the 1880s from the public to the private areas of women's lives. Her focus on gesture, facial expression, and the exchange of gazes allowed her to capture the psychological nuances that characterize family relationships, while avoiding the sentimentality and cliché that still characterized most images of maternity at the Paris Salon. In the present pastel, for instance, a mother gazes tenderly at her toddler, her hand resting gently on the child's forearm. The mother's profile and left side of the child's head form parallel, nesting curves that allude to the intimate bond between the two; at the same time, the child shifts her gaze away from her mother, suggesting a toddler's burgeoning independence. Griselda Pollock has written, "[Cassatt's] figure compositions discover both the tension in, and the pleasure of, interactions between children and adults who are emotionally bonded, while being at radically different moments of psychological development and life-cycle" (Mary Cassatt, Painter of Modern Women, New York, 1998, p. 16).
Although Cassatt's interest in the theme of maternity was motivated in part by her interest in the Old Masters and by demands of clients and dealers, it also reflects her advocacy of the women's suffrage movement and her belief in the important societal role that women played through their child-rearing duties. Her approach to the theme was informed as well by new concepts of childhood and parenting that emerged in the later nineteenth century. Judith Barter has explained, "Even more compelling for Cassatt than children per se was their care and the emotional and physical involvement with adults this entailed. Cassatt's compositions of 1880 and after--depicting children being bathed, dressed, being read to or held, nursing, and napping--reflect the most advanced ideas about the importance of maternity and the raising of children" (Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1998, p. 73).
The present pastel, dated circa 1914, is among the very last pictures that Cassatt made. In December 1910, she had undertaken a two-month journey up the Nile with her brother Gardner and his family. Her brother fell ill and died in Paris in April 1911; overwhelmed by loss and exhausted by the rigors of the expedition, Cassatt stopped working entirely until 1913. After her recovery, there was a brief period of less than two years in which she worked once more, before failing eyesight forced her to give up her art permanently. Despite her waning strength, Cassatt's final pastels garnered great praise. H.O. and Louisine Havemeyer, the celebrated collectors of Impressionist art, acquired two examples (Breeskin, nos. 599-600; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), as did the Texas railroad tycoon James Stillman (Breeskin, nos. 593-594; Private collection and Westmoreland County Museum of Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania). Cassatt herself was confident that her latest work was her strongest, writing to Louisine Havemeyer about seven pastels that she delivered to Durand-Ruel in December 1913, "They were in many respects the best that I have done, more freely handled and more brilliant in color" (quoted in E.J. Bullard, Mary Cassatt, Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, p. 84).
Like Degas, Cassatt worked in her late years exclusively in pastel, which required less physical strength than oil painting. Her final pastels are distinguished by ever brighter colors (such as the vivid blue of the mother's dress in the present example) and by slashing, swiftly applied strokes. She also considered the medium of pastel particularly appropriate for the depiction of children, the sole subject of her last works. In 1898, during a trip to the United States in which she produced several pastel portraits on commission, she commented to Harris Whittemore that pastel was "the most satisfactory medium for [portraying] children" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 1998, p. 221). Harriet Stratis has written, "It may have been the velvety and tactile qualities of medium that led her to associate its use with the depiction of youth. The spontaneity that pastel allowed was surely an advantage when drawing children who could or would not sit still for long periods of time. Furthermore the subjects of many of these works are engaged in the act of touching; the gentleness of a caress was perhaps best conveyed with the softest of media" (ibid., p. 221).