Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita was born and educated in Japan before he moved to Paris in 1913. There he lived and worked in Montmartre amongst the other non-French artists working in Paris before the First World War, who formed the Ecole de Paris.
Mère et enfant belongs to a small series of gouaches that Foujita executed over gold leaf starting in 1918. He had learned the ancient technique during his studies at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, however the direct impetus to applying the technique to western subjects is likely to have been his recent visit to the Vatican.
Through his patron, Henri Seeholzer, the French ambassador to the Holy See, Foujita had been granted an audience with Pope Benedict XV. The Pope commissioned a portrait from the artist and also invited him to study the art treasures of the Vatican.
Pope Benedict XV died before Foujita could execute his portrait, however the influence of this trip and the study of these works, including works by Giotto and Fra Angelico's decorations for the Chapel of Nicholas V, is materially evident not only in the gold leaf but in the rich, jewel-like colours and stylized figures of the present work.
Whilst adopting certain compositions and figures from these religious paintings, however, the subject of the work, the mother and child, remains secular, if decidedly mystical. This is typical of Foujita's series of gold-leaf gouaches, which feature angels, sirens, graces and even dancers, but avoid any narrative or definitively religious subject. Indeed it was only much later, when the artist returned to France in 1950 after leaving for Japan in 1931, and when he finally took French nationality and converted to Catholicism, that Foujita would develop full-fledged religious imagery.