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Children Playing on the Beach, 1884

Children Playing on the Beach Description


Children Playing on the Beach, 1884
Mary Cassatt
(American, 1844 – 1926)
oil on canvas
overall: 38" x 29"
gift from: Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 

Children Playing on the Beach demonstrates Mary Cassatt's skill at capturing the natural attitudes of children. The intent expression on one child's face, the lowered angles of their heads, and the set of their shoulders suggest complete concentration on their activities. Especially appealing is the awkward way in which the toddler on the left grips the long handle of her shovel while holding the rim of the bucket with her other pudgy hand fully unaware of the viewers gaze.

Cassatt's interest in structure and strong sense of patterning comes through clearly in this painting. Her careful brushstrokes follow the contours of the girls' arms, legs, and heads, creating the solid areas of color typical of her work after 1883. To keep the center of attention on the little girls, Cassatt treated the seascape background more loosely; the boats on the ocean melt into a haze of natural light. She emphasized surface pattern by repeating the accents of dark dresses under crisp white pinafores. 

By the time Mary Cassatt exhibited this painting at the eighth and final impressionist exhibition in 1886, her reputation as a tender but unsentimental painter of mothers and children had been well established.

Cassatt’s focus on a limited range of subjects allowed her to experiment with both the formal elements and painterly qualities of a composition.Children Playing on the Beach reflects in particular Cassatt’s interest in Japanese prints. By tightly cropping the scene, tilting the picture plane forward, and reducing the number of objects in the background, she draws attention to the girls digging in the sand. Absorbed in their activity, they embody the naturalism then prevalent in both art and literature.

This depiction of a coastal setting—a rarity for Cassatt—also conveys a sense of spontaneity and freshness. Various shades of blue dominate the palette while accents of white convey sunlight bouncing off the girls’ dresses, hats, and pails. In the foreground form is built through color and line, but the background is reduced to its essential elements through a series of thinly painted scumbles applied with a nearly dry brush. Cassatt also intentionally leaves areas of the priming layer exposed, suggesting to the viewer that she was working quickly to capture a passing moment in these children’s lives.

Children Playing at the Beach

In their similar pinafores, they almost seem to be the same child, turned 90 degrees in a double exposure

Cassatt simplifies the background of her painting to focus on the children. They do not even cast any shadows on the ground. The colors of the background, primarily blue, white, and buff, are used for the children as well. But while the background is made up of flat, horizontal bands of color, the children and their buckets are formed of circles and other rounded shapes. The background colors are cool, but Cassatt emphasizes the warmth of the children in their rosy flesh and the brightness of their clothes.

The romantic moodiness, ethnic costumes, and references to Old Master styles disappeared, to be replaced by an acutely observed record of the world around her. By concentrating on the subjects that reflected her own experience, she developed a natural honesty that made her work distinctive.

Children were rarely painted alone, except for portraits

Seen from an adult perspective—looking from above

Only beach scene she painted


Created by artist Mary Cassatt at the end of the nineteenth century, ‘Children on the Beach’ was part of an Impressionist collection of works that portrayed the lives of women and children. Noted for her soft pleasing palette, natural simplistic forms and flat composition, Cassatt captured children relaxed and at play, unaware of the viewer’s gaze. This painting, one of the last created in this loose style with solid areas of color, is typical of the artist's style in the 1880’s, after which she began to more boldly define her subjects. The artist’s inscription can be viewed on the lower right side of the painting.

Mary Cassatt's interest in structure and surface patterning is clearly defined in this painting, emphasized by repeated accents of dark dresses under white pinafores. Great attention is given to the brushstrokes which make up the contours of the children’s forms. Her approach to background is a little more unconstrained as the boats dissolve into the horizon.

Quotes and Exhibitions

At Degas’ invitation, Mary Cassatt was the only American artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists at the last Impressionist exhibition. In response to this invitation, she said to her biographer Achille Ségard: “I accepted with joy. At last, I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art.”

In a review of the exhibition, Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926), French critic and writer on art, literature and politics, commented on ‘Children on the Beach’ by saying "[It] has the sharp outline that things and people have on the sand with the background of water and sky. The short arms and the dollish faces let you guess the flesh under a thick layer of suntan." He believed that Mary Cassatt’s blend of impressionist influences, as well as her study of Japanese prints, promoted the equal significance of background and foreground.

Art critic Helen A. Harrison stated in the article ‘Female Artists, Then and Now’ (December 7, 2003) “it is her pastels that best demonstrate her sensitive touch, her gift for simplification without sacrificing likeness, and her feeling for the play of natural light on surfaces and textures.” In another New York Times art review ‘Childless but Fascinated by Intimate Family Life’ (December 1, 2000), Ken Johnson regarded her work as “fiercely precise and intelligent”, and remarked that it “acquired an undeserved reputation for saccharine softness.”

‘Children on the Beach’ is part of the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, U.S.A. 

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