Photograph of Mary Cassatt taken in Parma, 1872, Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia

Works mentioned on this page:
The Bath
The Blue Room
Lydia Leaning on Her Arms, Seated in a Loge
Portrait of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer
Portrait of the Artist
Woman Holding a Zinnia

 

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Commentary by Adelyn Dohme Breeskin
from
Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors, and Drawings
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970

INTRODUCTION

As the only American in the great French Impressionist movement, Mary Cassatt holds a unique place in the history of art. When invited by Edgar Degas to join the group in 1877 she accepted with delight, as she later explained; "At last I could work in complete independence, without bothering about the eventual judgment of a jury."1 Her personality was already distinctive; her special characteristics of style established.

Her indebtedness to Degas was nevertheless considerable since he criticized her efforts constantly during the early, formative years of her career and gave her his own high art standards to uphold. But he in turn owed much to her. Not only did she deeply appreciate his tremendous talents and lend him her criticism and praise, but she gave him a loyalty and a support which once drew from their mutual friend Camille Pissarro, when he was trying to interest his fellow artists in organizing another exhibition, the following remark: "Degas doesn't care, he doesn't have to sell, he will always have Miss Cassatt." Pissarro was correct. It was she who in his old age could not bear to see Degas living alone, neglected. She journeyed south to visit his niece and persuaded her to come to Paris to be with him. Throughout his life she gloried in his art, in his cultivated mind and spirit, in his frankness and biting wit.

Among many things that she learned from the study of his art was the true, lively conception of a subject which she interpreted in her maternity groups, her figure studies, and her portraits. The pose is always relaxed, the attitude natural, the feeling vivid and lively. The arrangement of her compositions is never stiff or static. There is a calmness and a structural clarity about them that is both strong and forceful. There is sometimes an implied movement and, as the critic Huysmans mentioned, "a ruffle of feminine nerves" which passes through her paintings, which is actually a deeply felt reaction to the subject, an active response to its true quality. Her sense of truth is such that a homely subject is portrayed without any alleviation of coarse features or lack of prettiness (in Woman Holding a Zinnia (198) for instance).2 This attribute of honesty and integrity was one which the French mistook for awkwardness and lack of refinement. It was actually much the same thing that Degas insisted upon in portraying his little ballet girls. He showed them also just as they were when offstage, resting, or about to leave a rehearsal. In his work this was not so much resented since theatre subjects were further removed from the daily lives of the French people than were the young women and children with homely features and awkward poses portrayed by Mary Cassatt. She often preferred an unconventional pose, as we find in her early self-portrait (55) where she depicts herself leaning on her arm with her torso slanted on a strong diagonal. The pastel of her sister in a loge leaning forward on both arms (63) and the sprawling pose of the little girl in The Blue Room (56) are two good examples of such informality. All three of these works were executed under Degas' direct influence during 1879–80.

Degas and Miss Cassatt both found in Japanese prints many elements to which they responded, such as the asymmetry of composition based on the arabesque. In Mary Cassatt's drypoints this is most strikingly demonstrated, but throughout all of her work we find her preference for the off-center type of composition, with the balance subtly controlled and accents harmoniously placed. The foreshortening of the subject due to a high eye-level was another strong influence. An outstanding example of Miss Cassatt's use of this approach is in The Bath (205), her painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. In it the focus of attention is at the low center of the canvas, on the bowl of water toward which both the woman and the child are looking with their faces very much foreshortened. Her use of partial figures cut off by the frame also illustrates the influence of Japanese prints. This is demonstrated in The Bath, where only three quarters of the pitcher seen at the lower right, and only a portion of the decorated bureau at the upper right are enough to establish them as important elements in the composition.

Her color sense, especially in her use of pastel, was greatly stimulated by Degas' example. Her brilliant use of gorgeous colors created an unfailing luminosity. Until her eyesight weakened she used lively contrasts of color for the most part, and in her backgrounds she usually preferred to intermingle diagonal strokes of contrasting colors. Complementary colors are juxtaposed, warm colors used with cool ones, darker areas with lighter tones, and sometimes—to add an oriental note, as in the background of the portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer (255)—she introduces a few delicate, small flower forms.

Having been so thoroughly coached in her early years directly and effectively by Degas, but also through her study of old masters and her absorption of the works of Manet and Courbet, Miss Cassatt was able to assert a complete style of her own which developed gradually and flourished throughout the 1880s and '90s.

It was only after the turn of the century, and after she returned from her trip to America, that the dividing of her interests resulted in a lessening of her talents. For the most part, she was mercilessly self-critical and did not attempt to push her work before the public. It took time, therefore, for the world to realize the full worth of this remarkable artist, whose honesty of vision was equalled by the brilliance and breadth of her technique, together with the refinement and elegance of taste which distinguishes her works.

During the years leading up to World War I, Miss Cassatt saw a great deal of the American banker, James Stillman, who lived in grand style in Parc Monçeau in Paris. Under her tutelage he became an art collector, and by the time of his death in 1918 he had accumulated 24 of her works as well as some by her fellow Impressionists. He once placed all 24 of her paintings and pastels on exhibition in his home and invited friends to come and enjoy them, whereupon Miss Cassatt wrote to Mrs. Havemeyer that she thought that they looked very well there and that "perhaps they are right who say I will survive."

After Mr. Stillman's death, his son Dr. Edwin Stillman gave 17 or 18 of these works by Miss Cassatt as an anonymous gift to the Metropolitan Museum. The museum, in turn, gave a number of them to various museums throughout the country, which helped to enhance the artist's reputation and to spread her fame.

Among the main American collectors of her work was Mr. Payson Thompson, who also owned all of 24 works by her, not including prints. Most of them were bought directly from the artist and were finally sold at auction in 1928. Other outstanding groups of her works belonged to the Havemeyers, Dikran Kelekian, Albert E. McVitty, Mrs. Montgomery Sears, and various members of the artist's family. Unfortunately, many French collections were scattered after the death of their owners. This occurred in the case of Roger-Marx, George Viau, Ambroise Vollard and others.

In this catalogue raisonné, 943 works are listed. I have traveled three times to Europe to find works by Miss Cassatt in private collections, especially in France, where the artist lived throughout her adult life. It has become increasingly difficult to find them since so many owners now want to remain unknown for one reason or another. I trust that after this volume is published more works will come to light. To date, as catalogued, the large majority of her works are in America. It was a pleasant surprise, however, to find a group of seven works, including four pastel counterproofs, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The story of their peregrinations is dramatic. Shortly before Ambroise Vollard's death, which occurred in 1939, he was visited by a Paris dealer of Yugoslavian Jewish birth whose name seems to have been Clomovich, who persuaded Vollard to let him take back to his native country a group of Impressionist works, including seven by Miss Cassatt. He promised to take them to Belgrade where the authorities would be willing to assign a special gallery for them which would bear Vollard's name. Vollard agreed and the Yugoslav, when the Nazis approached Paris, returned to his native village where he was routed out by Hitler's men and shot. But he had told his mother that the art works which he had brought were to go to the National Museum at Belgrade. Therefore, at the close of the war, she packed them in crates and started off by train to deliver them to their destination. The train was wrecked en route and the crates of paintings and pastels were stolen. After much searching, they were finally found and delivered to the museum in 1949. Some time ago, I wrote the National Museum in Belgrade to find out whether they had any Cassatts, and the reply came that there were none. The United States ambassador at that time, Mr. C. Burke Elbrick, is art-minded, however, and after hearing indirectly that some of her works were there, I appealed to him. With his persistent help the necessary photographs and data finally came.

In listing the collections through which the various works have passed, there are many gaps in the sequence of owners. Whenever we know that a transfer has been direct we have inserted "to." The last entry is that of the present owner and is italicized (unless it belongs to a dealer, in which case it is not italicized, since ownership is apt to be temporary unless the work is privately owned). Durand-Ruel's file and photograph numbers are included in every case where they are known to me as a clue to authenticity. The Durand-Ruels were Miss Cassatt's dealers throughout her long career in Paris and they kept a full accounting of all her works that passed through their hands. For the same reason the Mathilde X stamp or wax seal is mentioned wherever it appears on a work. This, too, is a means of identifying a work as definitely by the artist. Upon her death, she left to Mathilde Vallet, her companion-housekeeper, everything in her studio, as well as a closetful of things which Mathilde, a thrifty Alsatian, had saved through the years, including many which I feel sure that Miss Cassatt had thrown away.

When her nephew, Gardner Cassatt, went to the artist's home at Mesnil-Theribus to arrange for the sale of her estate, he found a closet packed with works which Mathilde Vallet told him Miss Cassatt had given her. He did not question this. As a result, many works have come on the market which are not up to the artistic standard which Miss Cassatt always maintained. In Mathilde Vallet's 1927 sale, which was entitled "Collection de Mademoiselle X," 91 paintings, pastels, watercolors, and drawings were sold. The catalogue listed each item with measurements in centimeters and there are ten illustrations. In the 1931 sale, entitled "Dessins, Pastels, Peintures, Études par Mary Cassatt," each item was marked either on the recto or verso with the Mathilde X collection stamp, although I have not been able to verify this in some of the photographs. The illustrated catalogue is divided into the various media, with 10 paintings, 13 pastels, 34 watercolors, and 116 drawings. Each one is given a title and catalogue number, but no measurements are given. There are 27 illustrations, but aside from those illustrated it is difficult to identify each item. With the help of a marked copy sent to me by Mr. Charles Durand-Ruel, I was able to record the measurements of at least those items which later passed through Durand-Ruel's hands.

Most of the titles given have been improvised by the author, since Miss Cassatt very seldom titled her works. Those that have been given were usually made up by the galleries exhibiting her work. The most obvious title was often the one chosen, such as Mère et enfant. Since there are so many of them with this ambiguous designation, I have taken the liberty of retitling many to facilitate identification. Fortunately the names of some of the actual models who posed have been found and used wherever possible.

The measurements given of the various works must be considered merely approximate. In most cases, they were sent to me or were found on a photograph of the work. Many times they were measured within the frame, in which case the word "sight" should have been added, but often was not. The measurements are given first in inches with height preceding width, then in centimeters. To make the two types of measurements absolutely accurate has proved difficult. In the case of a number of preparatory drawings for prints the dates of the drawings and those of the prints vary. In every case the date given to the drawing should stand and that of the prints which followed will be adjusted in the forthcoming second edition of The Graphic Work of Mary Cassatt.

The compilation of the catalogue has been the work of many years. When Durand-Ruel closed their New York branch gallery in 1950, 1 was able, with the help of Mr. William Davidson at M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., to obtain five thick volumes of photographs of Miss Cassatt's works which had passed through Durand-Ruel's hands. These photographs formed the basis of this catalogue. The question of when to call a catalogue raisonné finished must bother all authors who attempt them. One could go on throughout a lifetime and still have unresolved questions as to ownership, provenance, and many other problems. It seemed wiser to call a halt finally, knowing that at some later date supplementary information will have to be published.

The question of authenticity is a major problem. Miss Cassatt's signature is one that can be easily forged, and she was not apt to sign her name until she was about to sell or give away a work. Many of the large group of works sent to her family were never signed, and there are many other instances in which she either did not sign or else did so long after the work was completed. I have therefore included many unsigned works and have left out quite a number bearing her signature. The only criterion has been her particular artistic hand-writing which, of course, developed gradually. The dating in most instances is approximate since she dated very few works. I have attempted to make the sequence in the catalogue, however, as chronologically correct as possible. Works on which information was received too late for them to be incorporated into the body of the catalogue have been put into an addenda section at the end of the book.

I am deeply indebted to many people for much help in the compilation of the catalogue. My deepest thanks go to Mrs. Horace Peters, who has stood by me as an alter ego, attending to many of the pesky details of organizing the necessary information and hunting down the whereabouts of owners and works. For the endless typing which the work demanded I am most indebted to Stephanie Belt and Tina Weiner. Research was also done by Christie Kayser, Marjorie Hoffer, and Joyce Keener. Georgia Rhoades has been a most thoughtful and efficient editor. I am also most appreciative of the help given by William Walker, the librarian of the National Collection of Fine Arts and National Portrait Gallery, and his excellent staff. I owe special thanks to Henry Gardiner formerly of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for answers to a number of questions as well as to Robert Schmit of Paris, who sent me photographs after contacting French owners of Miss Cassatt's work. I am also deeply indebted to M. Pierre Bisset of Paris, who turned over to me countless sketches which he made of Miss Cassatt's works and a very full bibliography and running text on the artist's life and work.

Dr. David Scott, Director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, 1964–1969, has been a most generous patron to whom I am deeply grateful for his interest and encouragement. Through the generosity of Mr. Lester Avnet the inclusion of many more color illustrations has been made possible. Mrs. Shirley Schlesinger was equally generous in helping with travel funds. To these and to many more kind people who have encouraged me in this work I extend my grateful thanks.

Notes:

[1] John Rewald, "The History of Impressionism," New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1946, p. 320.

[2] Numbers in parentheses throughout the Introduction, Commentary, and Biographical Chronology are the catalogue numbers in this volume of the works in question.

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