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Cassatt, Breakfast in Bed

Mary Cassatt, Breakfast In Bed, 1897 (Huntington Library) Speakers: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    I get the sense that the look of the mother is that of sorrow. Does anyone else get this impression? I wonder if Mary Cassatt is perhaps alluding to an early form of feminism here by drawing attention to the domesticity that pre-women's-lib women would have had thrust upon them as their only choice in life. Perhaps then this reflects on Mary Cassatt's own fears of being expected to rear children and to cast aside her ambitions to be an artist (not that those things are mutually exclusive TODAY, but that wasn't always the case....).
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user James Myers
    I love the commentary by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. But, I'm going to offer my first disagreement with the esteemed instructors here. I don't see the mother as looking passed the the child but looking directly at her. To me, I get the feeling the child has woken up the mother, is already very awake and Mom wasn't quite ready for it. The child seems blissfully unaware of the daily responsibilities of adults and Mom seems to look at her thinking "too early" and maybe even contemplating a bit of sadness that the same is eventually in store for her child when she becomes an adult.

    Am I off base with my take on this piece?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're in Pasadena, California at Female: Actually, I think it's San Marino. Male: Okay, we're in San Marino, California at the Huntington Library. We're looking at a painting by Mary Cassatt, Breakfast in Bed, which is dated to approximately 1894. It's really a gorgeous little painting. Female: It is; it's very beautiful. We see a woman lying in bed, just the upper part of her body, and she's got her arms around, I don't know, a three-year-old, a two- or three-year-old. Male: Two-year-old maybe, yeah. Very red-cheeked. Female: Yeah, very rosy-cheeked. The mother's sort of looking off out of the canvas in a very wistful way. Male: Whereas the child is absolutely present in the space, and upright and active. Female: That's true. Male: She is holding the child almost with her arm like a seat belt. Female: Right, so she doesn't slip off the bed. Male: Sort of restraining the child. Female: It's true, you can see that there's something on the mother's mind, but not the child. Male: No, it's true. The child is really in this moment, and the mother has a much broader kind of perspective. It's this incredible kind of contrast between their attentions that is really intimate and really powerfully expressed, and beautifully. Female: There's a lot of Finish, I think, or more Finish in their faces, but then all of these loose luscious brushstrokes in the whitish blue of the pillow and the bed, and even in the flesh of their skin is hatch marks of paint that are very visible. Male: There's something incredibly abstract about the way that the volumetric forms of the limbs are in contrast to the relative flatness of her nightgown, of the child's outfit, and the sheets and the pillows, all of which is white. There's this really complex interplay of those limbs against this relatively abstract painterly set of forms. Female: Although there is hatching of blues and red in the tones of their skin. But it's true, there is more painterliness. It looks like a very casual moment. You can see if you just study it a little more carefully how carefully composed it is. Male: Absolutely. Female: There's this diagonal line formed by the mother's body, but then there's blocks Male: The side of her face, yes. Female: The side of her face, right. These blocks of green that frame it. Male: And darkness. Actually, and the fourth corner is picked up by kind of a deeper tone in the sheets as well. Female: So she's sort of locked into place by those geometric forms, and then the cup and saucer. Male: But I'm really taken by this notion of attention and the relative difference of the attentions of the two figures, but also in the way that Cassatt seems to be constructing our visual attention, focusing on those faces, on the limbs to a lesser extent to the white and to the greens around them. There seems to be this really wonderful kind of agreement between the subject and actually the choices that the artist made in representation. Female: Yup, it's a beautiful painting. (jazzy music)