Throughout her career, Mary Cassatt explored the subject of children with a wonderful sense of intimacy and tenderness. Her images of young girls are among the finest examples of American Impressionism, and she received much acclaim for her pictures of this subject, returning to the theme throughout her career and investigating it in various mediums. Head of Smiling Child: A Study for ‘Mother and Child in a Boat’ is a wonderful example of this subject, portraying an endearing, smiling girl painted in the hallmark Impressionist technique of Cassatt’s mature style.
The present work is related to Mother and Child in a Boat (circa 1906-07, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts), which depicts the girl featured in the present work dangling her feet over the edge of a boat, with her attentive mother seated closely by her side and holding her hand. Another study for Mother and Child in a Boat is in the collection of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia. Phyllis Peet wrote of these preparatory paintings, “Cassatt devoted most of her studies for Mother and Child in a Boat to the young girl. She painted only a vague outline for the woman in the High Museum’s sketch. In contrast, careful attention is given to the child’s expression and the detail and texture of her features, reflecting the artist’s increasing emphasis on the subject matter of her last years as a painter—the child.” (American Paintings at the High Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p. 102)
In a letter dated September 14, 1906, Cassatt wrote from her country home in France to her niece, likely referring to the studies she was working on for Mother and Child in a Boat, “I am now painting, with my models in the boat and…sitting on the edge of the water, and in these warm still September days, it is lovely.” (Cassatt to Minnie Drexel Fell Cassatt, Mary Cassatt Letters, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., as quoted in P. Peets, American Paintings at the High Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p. 102) Neither the model Cassatt employed in the present work nor her mother in Mother and a Child in a Boat have been identified.
Head of Smiling Child: A Study for ‘Mother and Child in a Boat’ demonstrates the more thoroughly worked and vibrant surface of Cassatt's mature style. Cassatt’s technique in the present work creates an immediacy and liveliness in the composition. The heaviest brushwork is used to express the girl’s porcelain skin, the fullness of her rosy cheeks and her golden hair. The girl’s wide brimmed hat, which is also worn in the final version, is suggested with an economy of outlining strokes. Sparse, yet vivaciously applied, flecks of vibrant color are energetically dashed around the grey background.
The stylistic maturity of Cassatt's later works were met with great acclaim from critics, dealers, collectors and students on both sides of the Atlantic. The artist's broad international appeal during this period was testament that, "Although she worked throughout her entire career in France, her art is indeed expressive of the vitality which characterized the sturdy American temperament of her own epoch. She fused these thoroughly native qualities with a deep appreciation and thorough knowledge of the painting tradition of France, significantly enriching her life and art." (A.D. Breeskin in The Knoedler Galleries, The Paintings of Mary Cassatt, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1966, n.p.)
The original purchaser of the present work, who acquired it from Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in 1924, was Helen Whittemore (Mrs. Austin L.) Adams, who had posed as a baby for Cassatt's 1898 pastel portrait Mrs. Harris Whittemore and Baby Helen (Private Collection).