Mary Cassatt is a natural choice when introducing children to great art since she often used children and babies as the subject of her paintings. Her use of bright colors and depictions of everyday scenes from family life make her works very appealing to young children. They will recognize themselves in the pictures of a mother embracing her child or giving her baby a bath or a father reading to his young son. This makes her paintings especially well suited to introducing children to the concept of portraiture. As Cassatt is linked with the Impressionist movement, one could also use her life and works as an introduction to Impressionism and what that movement represented.
You can begin by just looking at a bunch of Mary Cassatt’s works with your child and talking about what a portrait is. The Rizzoli Art classics are a wonderful way to get a good look at famous artists’ works. These books include a bunch of high quality reproductions of an artist’s works along with an essay about the artist by a noted art historian. Obviously, the essays are way beyond what children need or want to know, but the beautiful, large, full-color reproductions are perfect for showing kids a representative sample of an artist’s work. You can buy these books used on Amazon for a reasonable price, or just check them out at the library.
Check out Artsy’s Mary Cassatt page to see an extensive gallery of her work as well as many other resources including a schedule of shows where you can see the work in person!
For children who are still in preschool, the board book Quiet Time with Cassatt is a good, simple introduction to Cassatt’s paintings. We also like the book Baby Loves which was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and shows several Cassatt paintings of babies along with a short, 2-word description of what the babies are doing. Although the book is really targeted at babies and toddlers, older children might enjoy just looking at the gorgeous reproductions of Cassatt paintings.
Children who are a little older might enjoy Mary Cassatt (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists) by Mike Venezia. This book is good at describing the Impressionist movement and how Cassatt became involved with the Impressionists herself. It also gives a short biography of her life including early experiences that may have inspired her to become an artist. The one thing missing from this book is actual depictions of Cassatt’s work. There are a few pictures of her paintings, but they are small and not very good quality. Good for ages 4 to 8.
For children who are older than 8, Monet and the Impressionists for Kids by Carol Sabbeth is a fascinating book. This book introduces children to the world of the Impressionists. Sabbeth does a good job of explaining what the classical art world looked like at the time and how the Impressionists diverged from the status quo. The book includes biographies of 7 artists, including Cassatt, along with suggestions for art projects. However, the information is a bit dense for children under 8.
The book Suzette and the Puppy by Joan Sweeney is a fictionalized account of Mary Cassatt’s meeting with the young girl depicted in her painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. Although the book is somewhat fictionalized, it is a good way to introduce kids to the idea that the people in portraits were most often real people who led lives outside of the painting. This really helps bring portraits to life for children as they begin to analyze facial expressions and interpret how the people are represented in these paintings. Realizing that the people in portraits were real people with real lives also can be inspiration for children to draw their own portraits of the people in their lives, which lead us to our projects!
Mirror or photograph of your child
Pens, pencils, colored pencils
Paper with Pre-printed or hand-drawn frames or just plain drawing paper
After discussing the idea of portraits and showing children several examples of Cassatt’s portraits, it may be time for them to try drawing a portrait of themselves. We found that providing a frame helped inspire children when drawing portraits. After all, who can resist filling in a blank canvas? You could draw a frame yourself using a Sharpie marker or dark pen on white paper. Alternatively, there are lots of free printable frames available on the internet; we used this printable frame from education.com. Provide the child with a photo of themselves or a mirror to look into and then just let them draw what they see using a pencil. After they are happy with the drawing, they can draw over the pencil with a darker pen and then add color using colored pencils.
Mary Cassatt is also a good artist to use as an introduction to pastels. Some of her most luminous portraits were drawn using pastels and she is a master in this medium. Below is a great project for introducing kids to the use of oil pastels using Cassatt’s works as inspiration.
Project: Exploring Oil Pastels
Dark colored construction paper or card stock
Paper towel or rags for blending
Have your child look at several examples of Cassatt’s pastel portraits and point out how she blends different colors together to create shadow and light. Have your child choose one favorite portrait that they want to use as inspiration. Give your child a piece of dark paper and some oil pastels then look at a specific area of the picture they have chosen and have them guess which colors Cassatt used to create that part of the picture. Then ask them to experiment with blending those same colors together on their paper. Do this with several different Cassatt portraits or different areas of the same picture.
For older children, you can try combining these two projects into one with this activity from artforsmallhands.com. This project is especially brilliant in the way that it invites children to reflect on the relationship between two people in a portrait. They are then asked to depict one of their own relationships in a drawing using pastels.
Printable Artist Fact Card
Print this fact card out and add to your collection of great artists and their work. Fold in half and laminate or cut and paste onto a 3×5 card.