Susan Comforting the Baby, c. 1881
Mary Cassatt, American,1844–1926, active France
Oil on canvas
25 5/8 × 39 3/8 inches (65.1 × 100 cm)
John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection, gift of Audrey Jones Beck
Habits of Mind
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Susan Comforting the Baby
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Research the lives of women in 19th-20th century Europe and America
- Understand how these women's experiences are reflected in art and literature of the time
Connecting to the Work of Art
The daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania banker, Mary Cassatt studied art in Philadelphia before moving to Europe at age 22. In 1874, she settled in Paris and quickly established herself as an artist specializing in paintings of women. Cassatt developed her own innovative approach to painting, prompting an invitation from artist Edgar Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1879. Admired by artists and critics alike, she soon achieved great success. Cassatt divided her later years between Paris and the French countryside. Although forced into early retirement by failing eyesight, she remained an active force in the art world. A mentor to many young artists who sought her advice, she also encouraged wealthy Americans to buy Impressionist art.
A favorite subject for Cassatt was the interaction between women and children. In this painting, a woman—the cousin of Cassatt’s loyal maid—soothes a distressed child. The baby probably belonged to the artist’s brother, Alexander, who often brought his four children to France to visit their aunt. Cassatt frequently entertained nieces and nephews at her chateau, which provided the setting for many of her images of mothers and children.
Gesture and expression are central to this painting. Seemingly on the verge of tears, the child presses one hand to the source of the grievance. Susan is evidently gentle, tender, and concerned. Their interaction suggests a close and comfortable relationship. By tilting the baby carriage upward and framing the figures in white, Cassatt has enhanced this sense of intimacy. In the background, lively dabs of color indicate the gardens of the chateau. The painting illustrates Cassatt’s remarkable ability to turn an everyday moment into a rich and moving work of art.
When Cassatt exhibited with the Impressionists, she discovered a whole new world of stylistic influences—including photography and Japanese woodblock prints, as well as the work of her fellow Impressionists. As seen in this painting, she adopted a brighter palette, looser brushwork, and more contemporary subject matter.
At a time when few women had careers of any kind, Cassatt decided to pursue painting as a profession. Like other women, she was denied much of the formal training available to male artists. Nor did she enjoy the freedom to paint many of the subjects and places explored by her male counterparts. Bars, cafes, and other venues favored by the Impressionists were deemed inappropriate environments for a woman. Instead, Cassatt used her distinctly female perspective to create intimate scenes of domestic life. She herself never married or had children.
- Describe this scene. What might have happened just before the moment captured by Cassatt? What might have happened after?
- Describe Cassatt’s style of painting. What are her colors like? Her brushstrokes? Feel free to compare it to other nearby paintings in the gallery.
- Is her style uniform, or does she use a number of different techniques? If so, which techniques are where?
- Compare this painting to other paintings in the gallery. How is its subject matter different?
- As you look around the gallery, what are the other images of women like? How does Susan Comforting the Baby compare?
- Why do you think Cassatt chose to paint in the style that she did? Consider other painting styles you’ve seen inside or outside of the museum. Would the mood of the painting be different if it was done in one of those styles? What does Impressionism bring to the image?
- Tell me what you know about the status of women in 19th-century Europe. Did they have freedom? Careers? Can you think of any famous women from that time period?
- Impressionist painters were almost all male. Their most commonly favored subjects were bars, cafés, and other places that were considered inappropriate for women to visit. With that in mind, what significance does Cassatt’s subject matter have? Are you surprised that she was a very successful painter as soon as she started exhibiting with the Impressionists?
• Research the role of women at the turn of the 20th century. What were some of the expectations placed on them? What were some of the restrictions? How are these assumptions reflected in Cassatt’s work?
• Research European and American literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What are some of the similarities between the work of women writers and that of Cassatt? Consider subject matter, plot, characters, and theme.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.