Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer, famously observed that “Beauty will save the world.” In this spirit, this blog series will focus on great works of art and how they reveal new layers of meaning to the inexhaustibly rich themes of life and human dignity, marriage and family, and religious freedom.
Mary Cassatt, born in Philadelphia in 1844, lived nearly all her adult life studying, collecting, and creating avant-garde artwork in France. She never married. She never bore children. But the decades-long gaze she fixed, through the sensitive and thoughtful eyes of a truly great artist, bore lasting fruit as a towering tribute to the beauty of motherhood.
Few are unfamiliar with Cassatt’s touching portrayals of mothers and their babies absorbed in the routine exercises of homelife. Bathing, feeding, sewing, reading, often doing nothing more than exchanging a look or a touch with the children in their laps, Cassatt’s mothers are immersed in a shared existence. This is the very opposite of the individualism the artist’s own commitment to art required her to adopt. But an authentic search for beauty, the most essential virtue of an artist, demands an unflagging fidelity to truth. And Mary Cassatt was too great an artist to ignore the exceeding goodness of the road she left untaken.
Unique among Cassatt’s finished works is the large-scale painting she titled The Boating Party (1893). The painting’s central figures, a mother and her softly squirming baby, resemble any of a hundred other pieces by the artist. But now the frame has been widened. We are permitted to see the rare figure of a father, and it is not unreasonable to assume that there is significance in this uncommon element. What clues does it give us to Cassatt’s attitudes and beliefs about the other half of parenthood to which she has devoted so much attention? The figure himself is unsurprisingly obscure. We see him from behind, his dark clothes strongly contrasting with the sun-drenched scene that we join him in beholding. The father is a lonely figure. He propels the boat forward only by physically pulling away from his family. His dependents face their helmsman.
All at once we glimpse the fragility of the mother’s and child’s shared world. Their relationship, as saturated with love as the figures are with sunlight, is seen perched on a small boat blown by the wind and floating on deep waters. The mother looks expectantly at her captain, visibly aware of her reliance on him, but warmly expressing, if not love, at least a willingness to love; a hope that her vulnerability will find shelter under his headship, permitting a true love to grow. There is something ominous about the man, and the dynamic composition hinges on the tension of vulnerability. Yet Cassatt refuses to give us any explicit indication of treachery on the part of the father, and, indeed, there is no reason to suspect that any exists. We are merely aware of his absolute importance to their continued flourishing.
Is this painting a confession of the necessity of co-dependency? Or is it a protest against it? Perhaps it’s both, but much more importantly, it is a call to parents. The Boating Party lays bare the delicate architecture of interdependence that makes up a family. Our modern society has become allergic to dependence. We’re encouraged to pursue self-sufficiency and self-reliance. There is little doubt that this widespread fear of interdependence is a natural reaction to the many instances of abuse, neglect, and abandonment we learn about so often. But Mary Cassatt saw plainly that true fruitfulness and fulfillment can only be found in vulnerability.
And the one figure who looks in the direction the boat is traveling, the child, asserts the impact of her parents’ fidelity to their calling both on her own future and the future of humanity.
John Sumereau graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Art from the Penn State School of Arts and Architecture in 2013. John lives in Winchester, Virginia with his wife and three children, whom he currently supports by working as an ultrasound tech at a local hospital. His artwork can be seen on the John Sumereau Art Facebook page.