“I accepted with joy. At last I could work without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Monet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art. I had begun to live life.”
“I accepted with joy. At last I could work without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Monet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art. I had begun to live life” (as quoted in Griselda Pollock, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1980, p. 9)
Mary Cassatt received her early artistic training at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she began studying in 1860 at the age of sixteen. In 1865, the young artist left Philadelphia for Paris and took private lessons with Jean-Léon Gérôme. With the exception of a brief return to Philadelphia in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Cassatt remained in Europe for the remainder of her life, settling permanently in Paris in 1875. Two years later, she became the only American artist to join the French Impressionist group at the invitation of her close friend, Edgar Degas. She later recalled, “I accepted with joy. At last I could work without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Monet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art. I had begun to live life” (as quoted in Griselda Pollock, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1980, p. 9). Cassatt’s association with the French Impressionists enhanced her reputation and her work became highly sought after by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic.
While Cassatt’s work of the 1870s had reflected her interest in the experience of modern women in Parisian society, by the 1880s her emphasis began to shift from the public to the private domains of women’s lives, and thus to the quiet, intimate moments spent within the domestic realm. Depictions of motherhood, largely comprised of simple, daily interactions between mothers and their children, were a natural outcome of Cassatt’s movement into this visual language. This shift was immediately noted by contemporary critics, who singled out the images of women and children Cassatt submitted to the sixth Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881 for special praise. One critic, Joris Karl Huysmans, observed that Cassatt had managed to avoid the cloying sentimentality that so often affected scenes of maternal tenderness and devotion. Indeed, the most successful of the artist’s works on this theme subtly capture the timeless bond between a mother and her child, a subject that accounts for one-third of the artist’s oeuvre. Cassatt’s refinement of this specific subject was a practice also championed by Degas, who once wrote to another artist, “. . . it is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seem to be chance, not even movement” (as quoted in E. John Bullard, Mary Cassatt: Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, pp. 15-16).
Cassatt painted Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder (No. 3) in 1900. Here she depicts a young woman holding her baby closely, her back to us as the viewer, though we see her face reflected in the mirror that sits atop the washbasin in the background. This specific compositional design is one Cassatt experimented with at several moments, particularly during this period in her career. According to Teresa Carbone, the structure reveals the artist’s increasing interest in emphasizing her youngest models as the subject of a work. Carbone continues, “Cassatt’s additional use of the mirror device in numerous works at about this time probably derives from the vanitas type, or Venus-with-a-mirror theme in Old Master paintings-though it figures as well in the Impressionist repertoire of intimate modern subjects. Cassatt has experimented with the cropping effects of a mirror in several of her remarkable color drypoints of 1890-91…. According to Nancy Mowll Mathews, Cassatt’s use of the mirror device at this time stems from her interest in representing woman’s essential role in shaping their children, and her coincident power to improve society” (American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum, Artists Born by 1876, vol. 1, New York, 2006, p. 352).
Cassatt created three pastel studies in preparation for Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder (No. 3). While the pastels all exhibit the more vigorous brushwork we associate with an impressionist style, the manner of execution of the present work is typical of this period in Cassatt’s career, during which she transitioned towards a more restrained application of her medium. This stylistic change is most fully on display in the careful modeling she adopts to render the form of her primary subject, effortlessly capturing the physical traits specific to babyhood. Yet the scene Cassatt has so carefully composed nonetheless creates the idea that the artist has caught mother and child in a natural state. By allowing the viewer a glimpse into the subject’s—and therefore her own—private world, Cassatt imbues her composition with an arresting sense of intimacy and blurs the distinction between the private and the public spheres.
The important American collector, Cyrus J. Lawrence, was an early owner of Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder (No. 3), acquiring the work from the artist’s gallerist, Durand-Ruel, in 1901. Lawrence owned several examples of Cassatt’s work and members of his family at times served as her models.