Let’s Look at Mary Cassatt’s Painting of A Young Mother Sewing

Although Mother’s Day is over, Molly and I hope you’ll join us this month as we look at one of Mary Cassatt’s beautiful and timeless paintings of mothers and children engaged in everyday activities.

In this post you’ll:

  • Find helpful vocabulary
  • Learn a little about Mary Cassatt and her paintings of mothers and children
  • Discover activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy her paintings
  • See a cute photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi

Helpful Vocabulary

These words, shown in bold green the first time, will help you and your children talk more easily about different parts of the painting.

  • Impressionists: a group of mostly French artists, who in the late 1800s, began painting outside so they could catch the way colors changed in different lights. They worked quickly with dabs and dashes, (creating an impression of their subject) so their paintings looked strange and unfinished to viewers. The Impressionists held their own annual exhibits in Paris. The style also spread to other countries.
  • Genre art:  art showing everyday events and people
  • Composition: the way an artist arranges all the parts to create a painting
  • The Renaissance: the rebirth or revival of classical (Greek and Roman) influences in art and literature, refers especially to the 14th -16th centuries in Italy when such greats as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael worked.

The Artist

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) who grew up in Philadelphia, always wanted to become an artist. Despite her father’s objections, she entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when she was 15. But women had separate classes from men, which frustrated Mary, and there were few museums in which to study great art. So, like many American artists, Mary traveled to Europe to study.

Even in Paris, Mary couldn’t attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, (France’s most prestigious art school), but she could study privately with Ecole masters and copy masterpieces at the Louvre. Many artists studied in this way.

Mary joined the French Impressionists just 5 years after their first exhibition in 1874. The only American and one of only three women, Mary continued exhibiting with the Impressionists until 1886

The men in the Impressionist group could go to cafes and travel around Paris and the surrounding countryside to find subjects to paint. Mary Cassatt and the other women couldn’t go to these places unless accompanied by a man. So they painted the domestic life of women and children, using their family members as models. Mary Cassatt is loved today for her beautiful paintings, pastels, and prints of mothers and children. In her Genre art we see the love between mothers and children in ordinary daily moments.

Though Cassatt lived the rest of her life in France, she never forgot the need for art in American museums. She helped Americans buy artworks to eventually go into these. Her own works are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, and many other big and small museums.

The Painting

A Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt,1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, public domain

Let’s look at a painting called A Young Mother Sewing. Cassatt has captured a quiet moment in time—the mother is intent on her sewing, while the child is staring at the viewer.

Though it is a genre painting, Cassatt has used a Composition in which the mother and child form a triangular shape, drawing our eyes up to the mother’s face. That triangle, together with the background horizontal and vertical lines, makes a stable, balanced composition.

This kind of composition was very common with portraits of the Madonna and Child in The Renaissance. So, though the woman is just an ordinary mom doing some sewing, Cassatt has given her great dignity and importance.  To compare, here’s a Madonna and Child painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci,1499-1508, National Gallery, London, public domain

While using classical composition, Cassatt also employs impressionistic techniques:

  • She fills the painting with light. Where the sun hits, we see yellow highlights, and instead of black for shadows on the child’s dress, we see light blues and greens.
  • She dissolves the outlines of faces, hands, and fabrics, which is characteristic of much Impressionist art. If we look closely at the vase on the table, we see the pattern is barely indicated, and the flowers are just orange blobs.
  • Instead of a detailed landscape behind the woman, which we would see in a Renaissance portrait, we see just patches of paint to indicate lawn and trees receding into a shadowy blue distance. Compare that to the detailed background in the Mona Lisa, also by da Vinci.

    Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1516, Louvre, Paris, public domain

    Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore A Young Mother Sewing

Before doing any other activities, ask your children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and ideas. According to your children’s ages, work in a little of the new vocabulary, but keep it short and simple.

  1. Ask what colors and patterns they see. Mention how the striped pattern on the mother’s dress helps show their close relationship.
  2. Ask children in what ways this painting resembles a modern photograph.
  3. What do they think the little girl is thinking as she looks at the viewer?
  4. Is she asking her mother a question or maybe asking her mother to come and play?
  5. Ask children if they’ve ever come to you or another adult to ask a question or to come and play? What happened? How should we behave at such times?
  6. What do they think will happen next?
  7. Other things you can do is to have children find all the blues, all the greens, and so on.

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Cute picture of Molly. In one of our everyday moments we’re reading a special book by Nancy Sanders about animal babies and their mommies. Here’s a link to my post interviewing Nancy about her adorable board book, Bedtime with Mommy.

Molly and I hope you enjoy learning about this special painting of a mother and child and will join us next week for a devotion based on another of Mary Cassatt’s artworks, The Fitting.


10 thoughts on “Let’s Look at Mary Cassatt’s Painting of A Young Mother Sewing

  1. CandyceCarden

    One of my favorite Cassette paintings. Great teaching activities bi wish I’d had your newsletters when I was teaching elementary school b


  2. photojaq

    Thank you for the simple but informative lesson on Cassett’s painting. We just returned from a cruise in the Mediterranean. We didn’t visit museums on the various stops, but did go into churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. Those buildings look so plain on the outside, but were breath-stopping inside for beauty, art, and how huge they were. Some of the mosaics we saw in Ravenna, Italy were absolutely stunning and amazing works.
    Jackie Houchin


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      That sounds like a delightful cruise! And yes much of Italy’s art is in its churches–so amazing! We didn’t get to Ravenna on our trip , but I’ve seen photos of those wonderful mosaics! I’m glad you had such a great time!


  3. Katherine Pasour

    Enjoyed this blog! I tried to comment when first read, but have had difficulty commenting on any of your blogs for the past three weeks. Not sure if it’s my computer or your website. Trying again today.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      I’m sorry for the difficulties, Katherine. It looks like all is well now as this comment and one before it have shown up. Please let me know if the trouble continues, so we can work on figuring out why.



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