Along the second half of the nineteenth and at the turn of the twentieth century, Mary Cassatt explored the relationship between mother and child in most of her paintings. American of origin and French by adoption, Mary Cassatt moved from the States to Paris, where she played an active role within the Impressionism movement, becoming close friends to Degas and Manet, among other Impressionist giants.
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Mary Cassatt was a modern and anti-conformist woman, influenced by feminist ideas and open to assimilating new scientific theories and philosophical concepts. With these premises, her work can be analyzed through the lenses of modernism and psychoanalysis. A closer look at the painting Mother and Child offers interesting insights into the emotional and psychological bonds between a parent and a child. Also, it shows how art can become an effective means to convey innovative ideas.
Mary Cassatt painted Mother and Child in 1914, and the artwork is currently hosted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From a stylistic view, the painting stands out for the excellence of the pastel technique, a favorite means among Impressionists for the capacity to express spontaneity and for the rendering of the natural light (Shelley par. 4).
The way the infant abandons completely on the mom’s body is representative of the desire for spontaneity and implies absolute trust in the maternal figure. From this perspective, the painting mirrors the theories aimed at defining the mother-child relationship, as developed within the relational psychoanalysis over the twentieth century.
The work of Donald Woods Winnicott seems especially appropriate to describe the piece of art by Mary Cassatt. Winnicott was a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst whose research focused on the importance of the parental role in the first year of life of infants (Abram par. 1).
Winnicott develops his thoughts within the object relation theory, studying the development of the psyche in early life. During the 1950s, Winnicott shook the pediatrician and parenting world by introducing the concept of a ‘good enough’ parent (Sidebotham 311). Substantially, Winnicott suggested that the perfect parent might be harmful to children. Also, perfectionism is a double-edged sword for the mother and the father, inevitably bound to fail in their attempt to reach perfection and to get caught in a spiral of feelings of guilt and endemic stress (Sidebotham 311). Hence, Winnicott proposes the ‘good enough’ idea as an alternative.
Children do not need the perfect parent, and the ‘good-enough mother’ is better than the ‘perfect mother.’ She might not be perfect, but she has all that children need, she tries to offer her best to them and does not weigh them with the burden of perfectionism. A ‘good-enough mother’ is able to create a safe environment where children can explore the complex world of relations and resort to their transitional objects under her aegis. The mother is the most important figure in the formation and development of the psyche of children. This statement, which is at the center of relational psychoanalysis, seems to find evidence in recent findings within interpersonal neurobiology, a field that explores how the human brain changes and conforms to relationships in defining the self.
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Birth is a traumatic experience, and the brain of a newborn has to cope with a series of sensory stimuli and starts creating new neural pathways. Research has shown that there is a synchronicity between the brain of the mother and her child, but the bonds go beyond the cerebral waves (Ackerman par. 4). There is an internal link that belongs neither to the mom nor to the infant, creating a space where the self is undefined, and that will influence all the future behaviors of the child.
This space is so permeable and emphatic that the mother knows what is required to create an adequate environment for the child. Naturally, she becomes the ‘good-enough mother,’ adapting herself to her infant’s needs and changing the degree of adaptation according to the improved abilities of the growing child (Sidebotham 311). This neural alchemy won’t disappear through the years, but it will remain as a sort of imprinting even when the child is grown up.
In Mary Cassatt’s canvas, some cues highlight the internal bond between the mother and her child. As already mentioned, the complete abandon of the child on the mother’s body delivers the message of safety and empathy, while the facial expression of the mother transmits awareness and confidence. Finally, the pastel technique, with the blurred borders characterized by overlapping brush strokes, seems to strengthen the identification of mother and child as a unity.
From a personal perspective, the painting triggers mixed feelings. The light colors and the quiet atmosphere remind of an age where there was always a safe port to recover from traumas. Indeed, my mother has represented the center of my childhood universe in my early life but, while the bond is still strong, I feel I’m almost trying to cut the umbilical cord the connects us. However, from the perspective of the ‘good-enough mother’ theory, the current situation seems to be an adaptation to the mutated life circumstances.
The canvas Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt reflects the modernist ideas of the Impressionist artist and her interest in exploring the complex parental relationships, especially as regards the mother-child relational attitudes. The painting can be analyzed from a psychoanalysis perspective, and it seems apt to explain the theory developed by Donald Woods Winnicott, who focused his research on the development of the psyche during the early stages of life.
He underlined the importance of the good-enough mother, able to adapt herself to the needs of the child. More recent studies in interpersonal neurobiology have found evidence of the emphatic bond between mother and child, showing how the imprinting received in the first days after birth will last throughout life.
Abram, Jan. “Donald Woods Winnicott”. Institute of Psychoanalysis. The British Psychoanalytical Society, 2015. Web.
Ackerman, Diane. “The Brain on Love”, New York Times, 2012. Web.
Shelley, Marjorie. “Mary Cassatt in a Modernist Light: A Close Look at Mother and Child”, THEMET, 2018. Web.
Sidebotham, Charlotte. “Good enough is good enough” British Journal of General Practice, vol. 67, no. 360, 2017 p. 311. Web.