Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 – 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Pennsylvania but lived much of her adult life in France. There she won praise acceptance from Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, becoming the only American invited to join their Impressionist group and later even exhibited among them.
At first glance, the painting seems a straightforward depiction of a nineteenth-century middle-class outing. Yet the artist included subtle hints about the figures’ relationships to one another that complicate this interpretation. Although Cassatt usually explored the familiar theme of mother and child, in this rendition the foreground is dominated by a male figure whose form is pressed against the picture plane and cast in silhouette by the sail’s shadow. In contrast, the female element of the composition — the woman and her child — appears in soft, pastel shades that reflect the summer sunlight.
The boatman, bending forward to begin another stroke of his oar, braces himself with one foot, while the woman maintains her stable position only by planting her feet on the floor of the boat. The sprawling baby, lulled by the rhythm of the water, looks liable to slide right off the mother’s lap. This slight awkwardness is a result of the boat’s movement, and the glances of the mother and child toward the boatman’s half-hidden features and back again suggest a complex, personal relationship, adding psychological tension to this pleasant excursion on a sunny afternoon.
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