Edgar Degas Mary Cassatt Seated Holding Cards c. 1880–84, (74 x 60 cm), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resources, NY

Works mentioned on this page:
The Bacchante
Bent Head and Torso of a Woman Looking Down
The Blue Room
Brother and Sister
Copy after Franz Hals
Early Portrait
Five O'clock Tea
A Goodnight Hug
Little Savoyard Child on the Arm of Her Mother
Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly
Lydia in a Loge, Wearing a Pearl Necklace
Lydia Leaning on Her Arms, Seated in a Loge
Lydia Working at a Tapestry Frame
The Mandolin Player
Miss Cassatt's Mother in a Lacy Blouse
Miss Mary Ellison Embroidering
Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child
Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading
A Musical Party
On the Balcony during the Carnival
Portrait of Eddy Cassatt
Portrait of Miss Cassatt's Father (Robert Simpson Cassatt)
Portrait of Mme Cortier
Portrait of Mrs. Currey; Sketch of Mr. Cassatt
Portrait of the Artist
The Reader
Reading "Le Figaro"
Red-haired Nude, Seated
Roman Girl
Susan on a Balcony Holding a Dog
Toreador
Torero and Young Girl
Two Children at the Window
Two Women, One Sketching
Two Women Seated by a Woodland Stream
Two Young Ladies in a Loge
Woman and Child Driving
A Woman in Black at the Opera
The Young Bride
Young Girl With a Portfolio of Pictures
Young Lady in a Loge Gazing to Right
Young Woman Buttoning Her White Glove
Young Woman in a Hat Seated on the Ground under Trees
Young Woman in Black
Young Woman Standing By Railings

 

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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

One hundred years ago our country was very barren soil artistically speaking. Consequently, when Mary Cassatt in her early twenties decided to become an artist, she was forced to go to Europe to pursue her high ambition. She had already attended one of the very few established art schools in our country, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and found the courses altogether uninspiring. Therefore, during the year of 1866 she embarked for France. She stayed in Paris with family friends and haunted the Louvre and other museums, studying the works of old masters and thus learning about art at its source.

Her schooling in Philadelphia had commenced with drawing from casts and still-life groups. After two or three years of this, she had been allowed to copy oil paintings hanging in the Academy. One in particular of which she copied a portion was The Deliverance of Leyden by Witkamp, a contemporary Dutch academician of no particular standing. She soon became convinced, however, that copying great paintings was the best way to learn the art of painting. In her later years she would show young aspiring students from America who came to visit her the only one of her copies which seems to have survived, Copy after Frans Hals (25), and tell them that in such works she gradually mastered the technique of painting.

After a few years abroad she began sending her paintings home to Philadelphia to be sold by a local framer and art dealer. Others she must have sold in France or else given them to friends. There are only a handful that have so far come to light from those first years of study abroad. To begin with, there is a rough sketch of the bent head of a fellow student (1), dashed off with a degree of spirited verve, though lacking any real assurance. Then there are two early pastels (2, 3) of a little brother and sister, one a sentimental tribute to companionship in loneliness, followed by an amateurish attempt at portraiture that was definitely made just to please. In comparison with the artist's later brilliant use of the pastel medium and her complete absence of sentimentality, these two very early works give an indication of how far she needed to progress.

After two years or so in Europe, she went on a sketching trip to the Haute Savoie region of France with Miss Gordon, a Philadelphia friend. Some sketches (4, 6, 7, 8) have survived from that trip which demonstrate a newfound interest in light and a breadth of treatment which anticipated her allegiance to Impressionism.

When news reached Philadelphia of the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, her parents insisted upon her coming home. It was just before leaving that she painted Young Woman Standing by Railings (9), a naive work of charm and sincerity. She brought back with her a number of canvases which she hoped to sell, for her father had insisted that if she wanted to continue her studies she must pay her own way—for studio, models, and materials. She took a number of her works with her on a trip to Chicago. She arrived there in time to be caught in the great fire of 1871, in which, unfortunately, these paintings were destroyed. The over-ambitious portrait of her nephew Eddie (12), however, was done during the year or so that she remained with her family in Philadelphia, as well as the very interesting and much more successful double sketch of her father and of Mrs. Currey (11).

Without doubt the budding artist in her was more than eager to return to Europe. Consequently, by 1872 she left this country and went at once to Parma, Italy, to study the works of Correggio and Parmigianino. The Bacchante (15), and the Early Portrait (16) which she inscribed to Carlo Raimondi, from whom she rented studio space while in Parma, both reflect her study of these two masters whom she continued to revere throughout her life. As late as 1913 she wrote that she hoped to go back to Italy to study Parmigianino's works again and to show what El Greco owed to him. She stayed for about eight months in Parma, working diligently. It is probable that she took some lessons in printmaking from Raimondi, since he taught engraving and etching at the local Academy, techniques which she later used with remarkable aptitude. The Bacchante shows a close adherence to the youthful fresco style of Correggio in the convent of San Paolo, especially in her use of decorative vine leaves in the model's hair and the active pose of the figure. The Mandolin Player (17) is very much more somber and calm, but its softened contours derive also from those Parma studies.

From Rome she then sent off to the Paris Salon of 1872 the painting On the Balcony During the Carnival (18) about which her brother Aleck wrote as follows: "She [Mary] is in high spirits as her picture has been accepted for the annual exhibition in Paris . . . and not only has it been accepted but it has been hung on the 'line.' . . . Mary's art name is 'Mary Stevenson' under which name I suppose she expects to become famous, poor child."[1] In the light of such remarks one can surmise how difficult it was to make her family take her art seriously. Actually, they were never fully to appreciate her talents. Already in this Salon painting she showed marked ability. It is an academic painting, but of its kind altogether professional. The Roman Girl (19) which followed it is of a more blond palette, a courageous step away from the "brown sauce" to which the juries of the Salon were partial.

While in Spain, her attention was focused first on Velasquez, but before long Rubens delighted her even more with his warm flesh tones and brilliant use of color. In two important paintings executed while there, she responded to his influence and advanced in stature to new heights, first in Torero and Young Girl (22), accepted in the Salon of 1873, and with much more spirited results in the Toreador (23), a handsome canvas executed with true artistry—a Spanish idyll of marked significance in her development.

In order to further her study of Rubens she went next to Antwerp and also came under the spell of the Frans Hals painting of the Meeting of the Officers of the Cluveniers-Doelen at Haarlem, which she proceeded to copy (25), not slavishly line-for-line, but as a penetrating, yet summary, sketch, setting down the full flavor and character of the work without dwelling on any unimportant details. The original Hals painting measures 71 3/4 x 104 1/3 inches. This copy is only about one-sixteenth that size, yet it captures all the color, composition, and quality of the original. One cannot help wishing that more of her copies had survived. Among her drawings there are a few small sketches marked as copies which date from this period, but there must have been many more which have disappeared together with numerous copies done on canvas.

Her mother came to visit her while she was in Antwerp in 1873 and a portrait (27) done of her there is a fine character study with the features strongly modeled and sensitively defined. The artist next proceeded to Paris, having probably talked over her plans with her mother, letting her know that she had, by that time, decided to stay in Europe and to settle there quite permanently.

It is of interest, I think, at this point, to divide her work at that time into canvases done for exhibition and less pretentious work done to sell to dealers. Having settled in Paris, she was visited by a friend from Philadelphia, a Mrs. Mitchell, who was eager and willing to act as her agent and to take her works back to be sold in the United States. Mrs. Mitchell also arranged for them to be shown in exhibitions at the National Academy of Design in New York and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There, in 1876, Miss Cassatt was represented by one or two portraits and by A Musical Party (29), a picture of sufficient quality to have attracted her Philadelphia dealer, Teubner, who wanted to keep it for himself. It went back to France, however, and has recently been given to the Petit Palais, where it can very well represent one of the early successful steps in her career.

Among the small paintings of 1874 she executed eight (30–35, 46–47) or more on wood panels varying in size from quite small to medium size. The best of them is the Portrait of Mme Cortier (35), which she sent to the Salon of 1874, where Degas saw it and remarked to a friend, Joseph Tourney: "It is true. There is someone who feels as I do."[2] It is indeed a fine portrait, glowing with warm, lively color and with vivid characterization.

In spite of her steady advancement, her family was convinced that she needed more instruction and persuaded her to study under a well-known teacher, Charles Chaplin. Eva Gonzales, Manet's only pupil, had worked under him and may have recommended him to Miss Cassatt. She allowed herself to be persuaded to attend his classes for a short time, but they proved very uncongenial to her, especially his painting of semi-nude models whose translucent, roseate flesh tones were extremely artificial, not in a class with those of her favored realist painter, Courbet. Red-haired Nude, Seated (37) was evidently painted while she was there. As though deliberately defying the academic studio routine, Miss Cassatt began to pose her models outdoors (39–43), and may have asked for Chaplin's criticism of some of them. She sent a seated three-quarter length model, painted in bright light and entitled The Young Bride (44), to the Salon of 1875, only to have it refused. She sensed that the reason for its rejection was its blond color; she toned it down with a dark background and it was accepted the following year. After one more attempt, she realized that her chosen art approach did not conform to the dictates of the Salon and decided not to exhibit there any longer.

Within the year she produced such splendid works that she was already an Impressionist by the time Degas and Tourney visited her in 1877 and asked her to join the group at that time called the Independents. She later told her friend Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer that ever since her arrival in Paris she had studied Degas' works in art shop windows, absorbing all that she could of his art, and to her biographer Achille Segard she said, "I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live."[3]

In many of her early works, the influence of Courbet can be seen in her strict adherence to realism. In A Musical Party (29) the man in the background even resembles the handsome young Courbet. Most of all she admired that artist's insistence on contemporary subject matter, treating it objectively and truthfully. She, too, wanted to be of her own time and to portray it honestly, with deep insight and conviction. In later years she presented two of Courbet's paintings to the Pennsylvania, later Philadelphia, Museum of Art. She had sold a Cézanne to buy one of them and felt that she then had the greater work of art. At the time the Museum had no examples by Courbet and she considered it all-important that they should have him well represented.

Miss Cassatt's relationship with Edouard Manet was more personal, since they lived near each other, had mutual friends, and met from time to time during his later years until his death in 1883. Like Manet, she was an Impressionist only in the high key and luminosity of her color and in her insistence on the importance of light as it plays on objects. Three-dimensional form was important to both of them as well as contemporary subject matter. Her admiration for his painting can best be demonstrated by the many fine examples of his works which she was responsible for sending to our country, especially to the Havemeyer Collection now at the Metropolitan Museum.

She first met Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer as a young girl named Louisine Elder who was attending a fashionable boarding school in Paris run by an Italian friend of Miss Cassatt. She befriended this young girl, took her to exhibitions, and influenced her to buy the first of Degas' works to come to America. There were at the time at least two other American girls staying at the school, one of whom was Mary Ellison of Philadelphia. Miss Cassatt used her as a model on at least three different occasions. The portrait of her embroidering (48) is an especially handsome painting done in 1877. Together with the portrait of the artist's father (49) and the charming painting, The Reader (50), this may very well have been among the canvases shown to Degas when he came to invite Miss Cassatt to join his group. There must have been an immediate rapport established between them, but just how close it was we may never know, since the extent of their relationship is hidden in mystery. The fact that she burned all of his letters to her before she died is significant. From the time they first met until he died in 1917, a span of 40 years, they managed to maintain a close friendship that was taken for granted by all who knew them. But their relationship changed constantly due to his vitriolic temperament. There were long periods during which their estrangement could be terminated only by mutual friends who would manage to bring them together again. Credit for their continued intimacy, in spite of such difficulties, must be given to Miss Cassatt, who used great self-control and tact in dealing with Degas' cantankerous nature. She recognized his superiority and had profound respect for his genius but at the same time maintained her own pride and personality. When working on her Chicago mural in 1891, she wrote to Mrs. Potter Palmer: "I have been half a dozen times on the point of asking Degas to come and see my work but if he happens to be in the mood he would demolish me so completely that I could never pick myself up in time to finish for the exhibition."[4] And yet she was a self-assured woman, stubborn and determined, indomitable and forceful. She knew only too well that the cost to her in self-control and strain was great, but it was as nothing compared to the value of knowing his genius, even though she had to admit that he was a disenchanted pessimist. She once said: "He dissolves one so that you feel after being with him: 'Oh, why try, since nothing can be done about it.'"[5] She, on the other hand, had a vibrant, optimistic disposition which must have contrasted acutely with his. Nevertheless, they had much in common. They belonged to the same social class and both were exceptionally cultivated, with high ideals and similar tastes. Also, both were intellectually attuned and felt that drawing was all-important to art. They were both urban painters, preferring portraits and figure painting to landscape, and they shared an uncompromising objectivity. It has been suggested that he was able to talk to her as he couldn't to a Frenchwoman. His mother was a Creole from New Orleans, and this may have added to his sympathy for and understanding of the thoroughly American woman, Mary Cassatt. In 1872 he made a trip to New Orleans and wrote about it: "Everything attracts me here. I look at everything."[6]

Within a year after they first met Degas was giving her criticisms of her work, and we know that he actually worked on one of the most remarkable of her paintings, usually called The Blue Room (56). She wrote to Ambroise Vollard years later telling him that Degas not only liked the painting very much but actually had painted on it. The light coming through the two French doors onto the floor and the very bold shape made by the various upholstered furniture pieces as they cut off a fuller view of the floor are most likely his share in the work. The child lounging in the big chair is surely all hers.

Degas' plan to publish a journal in 1879 to which he and Miss Cassatt, as well as some others, were to contribute prints, certainly helped to cement their friendship. Even though the journal was never published, it served to accustom them to being constantly together and created the opportunity for mutual criticism.

From the year 1878 came her self-portrait (55) done in gouache which Mrs. Havemeyer later owned. It is done in the Impressionist manner, light-filled, informal, colorful, a work of great charm. Then followed a group of paintings and pastels of her sister and other models seated in a loge at the opera or the theater. They are among her very best works linked with Impressionism. Her use of pure color in the pastel medium is comparable to the technique of Degas and Manet and I feel quite sure that she learned it from Degas. We know that he blew steam on a pastel work after sketching the outlines. In this way, he changed the pastel particles into a paste which he worked with brushes of various hardness. If the water vaporized on the pastel instead of forming a paste, he would obtain a wash which he could spread with a brush. Naturally, he was careful not to have the steam cover all of the work. In some places he kept the original paste and thus produced variegated effects in harmony with the various elements of the composition. In the later '90s he began blowing a layer of fixative on a first sketch made in pastel. Then he would work on it again; each time spreading another coat of fixative. In this way, the color notations were superimposed on one another. This method was surely used by Miss Cassatt. Degas also mixed oil paint diluted with turpentine with pastel, pastel with distemper on canvas, pastel with gouache—this last used mostly on fans. Miss Cassatt seems to have made one fan, but it has never been found. In a few of her early works, however, she used oil, pastel, and gouache in different combinations. Degas, and probably she too, used a fixative made for him by Chialiva, an artist of Italian origin who lived in Paris and painted mostly animal studies.[7]

The years between 1879 and 1882 were very happy times for Miss Cassatt. We can surmise this from the many delightfully bright, happy paintings and pastels of that period, including the different vivid renderings of young women at the opera, of which there are eight altogether, four in pastel. An oil of 1879, Lydia in a Loge, Wearing a Pearl Necklace (64), was in the fourth (and her first) Impressionist exhibition. It is fresh and luminous and depicts the effects of artificial light on flesh tones brilliantly. This figure is beautifully modeled with an ease of pose and warmth of glowing color which is entrancing and gay. In preparation for it, we find the pastel of Lydia Leaning on Her Arms, Seated in a Loge (63), a delightful study, equally luminous and animated. To the Impressionist show of 1880 she sent a pastel of an auburn-haired young beauty (72) (seen in just head and shoulder length) holding an open fan. Gauguin also exhibited in that show and he liked this work so much that he asked Miss Cassatt for it, possibly in an exchange. When Gauguin's wife left him and went back to Copenhagen the picture went with her and she sold it. It later appeared in Berlin where it remained until 1930, and then came to the United States where it has remained in a private collection. It was possibly after studying this delightful work that Gauguin became convinced, and accordingly stated in comparing Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, that Miss Cassatt had as much charm but more force. Huysmans wrote about this same 1880 pastel: "In spite of her personality which is still not completely free, Miss Cassatt has nevertheless a curiosity, a special attraction, for a flutter of feminine nerves passes through her painting which is more poised, more calm, more able than that of Mme Morizot, a pupil of Manet."[8]

The Boston Museum's A Woman in Black at the Opera (73) is another very strong work, also painted in 1880 together with the Young Woman Buttoning Her White Glove (74). From two years later comes The Young Ladies in a Loge (121). In the foreground is a blonde girl said to be the daughter of Miss Cassatt's friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and behind the large open fan is Mary Ellison once again.

Much other spirited work was done then by the rapidly developing artist. During these crucial years, Degas wrote to his friend Henri Rouart: "The Cassatts have come back from Marly; Mlle is installed in a studio on the street level which seems to me is not very healthy. What she did in the country looks very well in studio light. It is much more firm and more noble than what she did last year."[9]

The works that gained such praise from this most severe critic certainly included the painting of Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly (98), one of her strongest works of these early years. The color is especially distinguished, with the soft blues of the gown contrasted with the rich dark crimson of the coleuses in the flower bed behind Lydia and the handsome white accents of her bonnet. It is indeed an outstanding example of Miss Cassatt's kind of Impressionism, which never fractured the form nor used color in dots and dashes in the manner of some of her fellow artists.

Five O'clock Tea (78) is another important work from these prolific years when she had not only the privilege of Degas' serious criticism but also that of his close friendship and deep admiration. The Woman and Child Driving (69) of 1879 shows his influence in many fascinating details. The partial view of the horse and gig, the groom whose humorous face is somewhat caricatured, and the intricate details of the harness, reins, and whip all reflect his teaching.

It was in 1880 that Miss Cassatt started her studies of mothers and children. A Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (90), now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is said to be the first on this theme, but there is also a charming pastel called A Goodnight Hug (88) done about the same time. During this year her nephews and nieces visited her for the first time, and from them came the stimulus to depict the very close and intimate relationship between mother and child which she had to observe second hand, having no children of her own. To be able to express the relationship without any sentimentality, with straightforward and unadulterated directness, was a gift which Degas, I feel sure, urged her to perfect; and perfect it she did. Just as Degas used his family and friends as subjects for portraiture, so did she. Having them at hand saved her time and effort so that she could concentrate on other aspects of her art. One very appealing work is Lydia Working at a Tapestry Frame (115), the last portrait of her sister, done about 1881. She died the following year after a long and painful illness.

There are many portraits from this early period which are noteworthy, including Susan on a Balcony Holding a Dog (125). It is a beautifully painted canvas, full of luminous color and Impressionist light, and is among the finest of her works, marking her steady progress. It leads on to the portrait of her mother entitled Reading "Le Figaro" (128) of 1883 in which, once again, her use of creamy whites is exceptionally lovely. This portrait of her mother reading is in my opinion as handsome a work as she ever achieved. The painting of the whites of the dress and those of the newspaper is very subtle and varied in tone, and the composition is quite bold, with the angle of the paper acutely accented in its reflection in the mirror. Miss Cassatt, like Manet, was fascinated by the spatial dynamism of the mirror image, and mirror reflections are to be found in her work throughout her career.

Contrasting with the blond tonality of these two portraits is Young Woman in Black (129), which shows an allegiance to Manet as well as to Degas. The broad brush work of the costume is more like Manet, but the horizontal bands behind the head, the cutting off of the fan on the wall, and the pattern of the cretonne-covered armchair—even the use of the veil through which the features are seen—these are closer to Degas, who a year or so before had made a pastel sketch of Miss Cassatt seated by a table with a dog on her lap. In it she wears a heavier veil through which her features are seen somewhat blurred.

Notes:

[1] Julia Carson, 1966, p. 9.

[2] Christian Brinton, "A Glance in Retrospect," catalogue of an exhibition, "Mary Cassatt" (The Union, Haverford College, 1939).

[3] Achille Segard, 1913, p. 8.

[4] Julia Carson, 1966, p. 98.

[5] Br., p. 15.

[6] From a letter by Degas written from New Orleans in 1873. "Lettres de Degas," in Bulletin de l'art ancien et moderne, June, 1931, p. 317.

[7] Denis Rouart, Degas à la recherche de sa technique, Paris, Floury, 1945, p. 22.

[8] Frederick A. Sweet, 1966, p. 51.

[9] Ibid., p. 57.

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