Mary Cassatt entered the Pennsylvania Academy at age sixteen. Six years later, with full family support, the artist went to Europe for further study, beginning the career that would ultimately result in her being claimed equally by European and American art history. Cassatt's spatial experimentation, bold handling, and interest in contemporary subject matter, as well as her extraordinary facility with the rapid medium of pastel, led to her invitation to exhibit with the Impressionists beginning in 1879. "Young Thomas and His Mother" belongs to themes of mothers and children that Cassatt began to investigate in the 1880s. It is one of several pastels to feature these particular models. In an intensely intimate, tightly cropped scene, the portrait oscillates between areas of closely observed naturalism and sketchy, abstracted passages, imbuing it with lyricism and dynamic tension.
The world of Cassatt's subjects is often mistakenly regarded as a cloistered one, but it is only one of the many spheres that she inhabited. She actively participated in the artistic life of both France and the United States. Cassatt tirelessly promoted advanced painting to wealthy American patrons, who made purchases largely on her recommendation. Many of these collections formed the nuclei of the great treasure troves of Impressionist art now in United States museums.