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Home | Articles | Mary Cassatt: A Woman's World

by William H. Gerdts

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), A Portrait of the Artist's Mother, ca. 1889-90. Soft-ground aquatint, printed in brown ink, a previously unknown intermediate state. Plate: 9-7/8 x 7-1/8 in.; sheet: 13-3/4 x 8-1/4 in.

Mary Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Collection of Ambroise Vollard at Adelson Galleries, New York, is the third exhibition of Cassatt works shown at the gallery in recent years. Like the 2000 and 2004 exhibitions, the present one continues the exploration of Cassatt's studio collection formerly owned by Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), her French dealer, friend, and mentor during her later years. On show are prints and drawings, many relating to well-known examples in the artist's oeuvre, that reveal Cassatt's exploration of color and the impact that new graphic strategies, especially those from Japan, had on her.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was the first American artist to join the Impressionist movement in France. Born into a prosperous Pennsylvania family, she began her training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, an activity her father frowned upon, and later, traveled to Paris to study the Old Masters. Having toured and studied in Italy, Spain, and Belgium, she settled permanently in Paris in 1875, where she was joined by her mother and sister, Lydia, in 1877. That same year, one of her paintings was accepted into the Salon, and there she met Edgar Degas, who became her close friend and whose work influenced hers. At his invitation she participated in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, and subsequently showed work at three more Impressionist exhibitions. Through her friendships with wealthy Americans such as Louisine and H. O. Havemeyer she encouraged the collecting of Impressionist works in
the United States.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), drawing for Lydia and Her Mother at Tea, ca. 1881. Soft pencil on paper, with soft-ground on the verso, initialed 'M.C.' Sheet: 7-3/8 x 11-1/4 in. This is the artist's study for the soft-ground and aquatint, Breeskin 69. Cassatt's sister, Lydia, and their mother are shown in a simplified interior setting. The overall shading of the figures in the drawing anticipates the flat, simplified forms of the Nabis movement of the 1890s. The artist is clearly preoccupied with the tension between observed versus abstracted representation, which is also demonstrated in the changes to the tilt of the tea tray.

Cassatt is often criticized for failing to explore some of the more daring and innovative subject matter of her male counterparts  the brothels and café concerts of Paris and their denizens  and for failing to show an interest in the informal nude. But this is to misunderstand the nature of Cassatt's artistic vision and purpose. Through a combination of talent and ambition, Cassatt established herself as a successful equal to her male counterparts. And just as they had their favorite themes, Cassatt had hers, which for the most part reflected the domestic pleasures of upper-class women, a world that Cassatt herself was most familiar with and was free to explore in novel and experimental ways.

Cassatt herself was most familiar with and was free to explore in novel and experimental ways.
Cassatt never married and her closest and most enduring relationships were with her mother, her sister, Lydia, who also never married, and her brothers and their children. She depicted her mother a number of times. A Portrait of the Artist's Mother, circa 1889-1890, a soft-ground etching and aquatint, printed in brown ink, which reproduces in reverse her last portrait of her mother (private collection), is a moving image of the elderly and somewhat frail Mrs. Cassatt. In the soft-pencil drawing Lydia and her Mother at Tea, circa 1881, Cassatt's mother appears younger and more animated sitting alongside Cassatt's sister, Lydia, her favorite model until
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Tea, ca. 1880. Oil on canvas, 25-1/2 x 36-1/4 inches. Photograph copyright 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund, 42.178.

One of Cassatt's most famous works, The Tea bears a strong resemblance to the drawing shown above.

Lydia's death in 1882. Here, Cassatt depicts the two individuals closest to her enjoying themselves in their closed 'women's space,' while also highlighting the rich silver tea set in the foreground. The work also bears a close resemblance to one of Cassatt's most famous oil paintings, The Tea, in which Lydia, is entertaining a younger and more style-conscious friend. In the drawing and etching, the identity of Mrs. Cassatt seems open to question because her features are partly concealed.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Afternoon Tea Party [La Visite], 1890-1891. Drypoint and aquatint, printed in colors from three plates, a rare proof of the penultimate state, initialed 'M.C.' at lower left. Plate: 13-5/8 x 10-1/2 in.; sheet: 18-7/8 x 12-1/4 in.

The underlying theme of Cassatt's series of ten color prints was the daily occupations of women. While the subjects of the Japanese prints that inspired her centered around the lives of courtesans, Cassatt's social point of reference was respectable society. This is one of only two impressions known of the penultimate state, with certain accent lines of drypoint and gilding of the tea service not yet indicated. The other, also from this collection, is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Cassatt undertook the subject of tea drinking again in Afternoon Tea Party [La Visite], a drypoint and aquatint, from her famous 1890-1891 series of ten color prints often referred to as The Ten. Her flat patterning of form and wiry linearism reflect the influence of an exhibition of Japanese works in Paris in 1890, while the exchange between the two women is far more animated than the muted scene of Lydia and her mother of a decade earlier. The strong linearism and contrast between the richly patterned robe and the nude upper torso of the figure in Woman Bathing [La Toilette], another drypoint and aquatint from The Ten, reflects the influence of Japanese art, while also acknowledging a debt to Degas's series of pastels and monotypes of bathers.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Woman Bathing [La Toilette], 1890-1891. Drypoint and aquatint, printed in colors from three plates, initialed 'M.C.' at lower left. Plate: 14-3/8 x 10-5/8 in.; sheet: 17-1/4 x 11-7/8 in.

One of Cassatt's most prized subjects, from her landmark series of ten color prints inspired by her interest in Japanese art. As with all of her color prints, Cassatt remixed the inks for each impression to achieve individual effects.

In Cassatt's later years, she became especially known for her renderings of mothers and children the first biography of Cassatt, written by Achille Segard, was entitled Un Peintre des Enfants et des Méres, Mary Cassatt (1913). This aspect of her work is brilliantly represented in The Barefooted Child, 1896-1897, one of Cassatt's last drypoint and aquatint prints. The severe frontality and symmetry of the group is ameliorated by the playfulness of the mother encouraging her infant in the game of patty-cake. This print is related to the artist's 1897 pastel Patty-Cake, now in the collection of the Denver Art Museum.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Drawing for 'Lady in Black in a Loge, Facing Right' [Au Spectacle], ca. 1880. Soft pencil on paper, with soft-ground on the verso, initialed 'M.C' at lower left. Sheet: 8-3/4 x 12-1/8 in.

This is the artist's drawing for the soft-ground and aquatint, Breeskin 24. This finished pictorial pencil drawing is certainly one of Cassatt's most perfectly realized works in the medium. With its richly worked foreground and the deft depiction of the audience in the facing rings of the theater, it is a perfect distillation of light and atmosphere. It is also extraordinary that she was able to realize this effect so successfully in the soft-ground etching for which the drawing was done.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Barefooted Child, 1896-1897. Drypoint and aquatint, printed in colors, from three plates, initialed 'M.C.', an extraordinary, early experimental color proof. Plate: 9-5/8 x 12-5/8 in.; sheet: 13-3/4 x 17 in.

This superb and unique color proof exemplifies the daringly bold and modern color combinations with which the artist experimented before settling on a more restrained palette. The lively color, contrasting with the child's white smock, directs the viewer's attention to the playful game of 'patty-cake.' Exhibited in Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, 1989-1990, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass., illustrated in the catalogue on page 192, described p. 193. The intended edition, in variations of the color combination with yellow skirt and light green background, was 50 impressions.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926),In the Loge, 1878. Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches. Photograph copyright 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Hayden Collection Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 10.35.

Cassatt traveled widely, visited friends and exhibitions, and was especially enamored of the theater and opera, where some of her finest paintings and pastels are set. Lady in Black in a Loge, Facing Right, circa 1880, a soft pencil drawing for a soft-ground etching and aquatint, encompasses Cassatt's distinct approach to theater subjects. Unlike many popular images of theatrical attendance of the period, Cassatt concentrates, not on the stage spectacle, but on women theatergoers, sometimes, as here, partially shielded by a fan. The event depicted here, probably a matinée given the relative severity of the women's dress is of special interest, for in the print derived from this drawing the second figure at the right, holding opera glasses, is almost obscured, and thus offers less comparison with one of the most famous of all Cassatt's theater pictures, a single woman peering intensely through opera glasses in In the Loge, 1878.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), In the Omnibus [Intérieur d'un tramway passant un pont], 1890-91. Drypoint and aquatint printed in colors, from three plates, initialed 'M.C.' at lower left.Plate: 14-1/2 x 10-1/2 in.; sheet: 16-5/8 x 12-1/4 in.

As with all of the series of ten, Cassatt took great care in this composition to eliminate anything superfluous or merely anecdotal from the setting. The colors and the structure of the composition emphasize the reflectiveness of the mother in contrast to the more present preoccupations of the maid.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Gathering Fruit [Le Potager], 1893, Drypoint, soft-ground and aquatint printed in colors from three plates, an exceptionally fine, vivid proof. Plate: 16-5/8 x 11-5/8 in.; sheet: 19-3/4 x 153/8 in.

An extraordinarily vivid impression of one of Cassatt's greatest color prints. Here the artist refines the principal elements of the central panel in her famous Modern Woman mural executed for the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Though an edition of twenty was intended, only a small number of impressions have been located.

Cassatt seldom took her viewers out of doors; probably her best-known public scene is In the Omnibus [Intérieur d'un tramway passant un pont], from the set of ten drypoints and aquatints of 1890-91. It shows a rather unembellished group of mother, nurse, and child, each characterized by their role and age, with a Parisian view beyond the open tram windows. Another outdoor scene, Gathering Fruit [Le Potager],1893, a drypoint, soft-ground etching and aquatint, is especially famous as a refinement of the central panel of her enormous mural, Modern Woman (whereabouts unknown), created for the Women's Building of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The theme of fruit gathering, particularly by women, was an especially prominent one among Impressionists in the late 1880s and early 1890s tackled by artists such as Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Theodore Robinson, and Joseph DeCamp. While most were straightforward depictions of rustic women at work, Cassatt's work had the larger theme of the gathering of knowledge by women, and through it, the acquisition of independence, and the passing of these 'fruits' down to future generations of women.

Adelson Galleries' exhibition Mary Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Collection of Ambroise Vollard runs through June 6, 2008. For more information, call 212.439.6800 or visit www.adelsongalleries.com.

William H. Gerdts is professor emeritus of Art History, Graduate School of the City University of New York and senior advisor in American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

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