In 1879 Cassatt was one of the Impressionist artists experimenting with graphic techniques for a print journal they intended to make. Eventually this journal was never created, but it helped Cassatt develop her talents as a printmaker. In the late 1880s, Cassatt viewed a selection of Japanese prints and was inspired by their methods in her own creations. This influence can particularly be seen in a set of ten prints created for an exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, one of which was Maternal Caress.
Maternal Caress has been printed from three color plates. Printed on ivory laid paper, it utilizes the Japanese techniques she had admired. The print features a woman seated on a chair in a bedroom, cuddling a small child. However, the infant is no passive figure but is instead returning the embrace with arms tightly around the mother's neck. The application of aquatint brings a subtlety to the floor, while the background of the bed, wallpaper, and chair have been inked in warm colors forming a frame for the central figures whose detailed features were created with spare etching and drypoint lines.
The theme of the mother and child is a well-established one in art, with countless images of the Madonna and Child painted over the centuries. In the 19th century, Cassett was far from alone in creating their own version of this theme. However, she was unusual in making it her specialty and gained renowned for her realism in her images. Among others the critic J. K. Huysmans was impressed with the realistic nature of the work, saying that in comparison with the poses favored by other artists of the time, Cassett's portrayals of the subject were "irreproachable pearls of Oriental sweetness."
Although childless herself, Mary Cassett achieved this realism in her work through observation. This process started in the 1880s when she was able to observe the bond between her sister-in-law and her nephew. Along with keen observational skills, Cassett also had to develop the ability to work quickly to capture such an active subject. Since its completion Maternal Caress has been exhibited many times in both France and the US. It is currently in the Terra Foundation for American Art.