Portrait of Mrs. Robert S. Cassatt, c. 1889–90

Works mentioned on this page:
At the Window
Baby on His Mother's Arm, Sucking His Finger
The Bath
The Boating Party (Near Antibes)
Breakfast in Bed
Detail from the Central Section, Mural of "Modern Woman" ("Gathering Fruit")
Ellen Mary Cassatt, Aged Four
Ellen Mary Cassatt in a White Coat
Emmie and Her Child
The Garden Lecture
Gardiner Green Hammond Jr.(293)
Gardner and Ellen Mary Cassatt
Girl Arranging Her Hair
Grandmother and Grandson
In the Garden
In the Park
Lady at the Tea Table
Madame Meerson and Her Daughter
Mme H. de Fleury and Her Child
Mother and Daughter, Both Wearing Large Hats
Mural of "Modern Woman"
Nude Baby Reaching for an Apple
The Oval Mirror
Peasant Mother and Child
The Pink Sash (Ellen Mary Cassatt)
Portrait of Frances L. Hammond as a Child
Portrait of a Frenchwoman and Her Son
Portrait of Gardiner G. Hammond and George Fiske Hammond
Portrait of a Grand Lady (Mrs. John Howard Whittemore)
Portrait of Margaret Milligan Sloane (No. 1)
Portrait of Margaret Milligan Sloane (No. 2)
Portrait of Mme A.F. Aude and Her Two Daughters
Portrait of Mrs. Havemeyer and Her Daughter Electra
Portrait of Mrs. Robert S. Cassatt
Roundel from the Border of the Mural of "Modern Woman"
The Sailor Boy: Gardner Cassatt
Sketch of a Young Woman Picking Fruit
Sleeping Baby at Mother's Breast
Study of Mrs. Clement B. Newbold
Summertime
Two Sisters
Woman from Martinique and Her Child

 

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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

Although five years and more were to pass before Cassatt went a number of times with Degas and other friends to see the Japanese Exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts, she seems already, between 1883 and 1885, to have become aware of certain phases of Japanese art which she accepted as valid and of special interest to her. We first find her use of the flattening of planes and emphasis on strongly linear contours in her great portrait of her cousin, Mrs. Riddle, which is now known as Lady at the Tea Table (139). The simply described dark shape of her gown is contrasted with the brilliantly sparkling blue Canton china across the foreground. The long-fingered hand holding the teapot is balanced by the lace ends of her cap and the strong line of her dark hair. The features are delicately suggested with very little three-dimensional form. Nevertheless, the individual character is set down with a directness and simplicity which marks the portrait as a "speaking likeness" as well as a powerful figure study.

At this point, Miss Cassatt seemed to assert a preference for the arabesque. We find it in many of the drypoints in which she concentrated on the heads and let the bodies of her models taper off into a graceful S-curve or a diagonal. In the painting Girl Arranging Her Hair (146) we see this tendency enter through the pose of the figure with the left elbow high, the dark line of the head and the braid of hair ending in the hand holding the braid and the lower arm, forming a continuous S-curve. It is offset by the tilt of the head and the long line of the gown at the right. The solidly modeled figure contrasts with the decoratively conceived background of wallpaper, interestingly detailed bamboo chair and mirror frame, and washstand appurtenances. After a serious quarrel with Degas over the meaning of the word "style," Cassatt painted this picture to prove that she knew what style meant. She not only won her point, but Degas took the painting and kept it throughout his lifetime.

The last portrait of Miss Cassatt's mother (162) was painted about 1889. It is a noble work done with great insight and deep appreciation. The simple black shape of the gown held in by the whites of the shawl supports the beautifully rendered head resting on the well-formed hand. The character of this aging woman, who had for a long time been ailing with heart trouble and had only a few more years to live, is vividly described. The broadly sketched background, full of quick, nervous strokes, contrasts with the serene quietude of the figure.

Throughout these years of steady development Miss Cassatt painted many more mothers with their children. She preferred the simple peasant people who had the complete care of their babies rather than the more worldly women who delegated most of the child's care to nursemaids. When painting these more detached mothers she portrayed the relationship as it was. Mme H. de Fleury and her Child (175) is an example, and also Portrait of a Frenchwoman and Her Son (479) of 1906. In the pastel called At the Window (179), it is definitely a nurse bringing the baby from his bath, whereas in Emmie and Her Child (156) the relationship is that of a country mother and her little girl. Equally delightful works in pastel are one which is now bequeathed to the Louvre (154) and another in which the contrast of pattern and flat color is even more definitely inspired by the Japanese (219). Added to this strong influence one can sense her solid draftsmanship, skillful interpretation of flesh and costumes, profound sentiment, and true gestures.

By 1890 Miss Cassatt had departed from an Impressionist approach in order to place greater emphasis on form and design. Her color became more focused and was used more for accents in specific areas. Little or no tumultuous action is to be found in her work as a whole. There is a sense of calm restraint and dignity, which to the more demonstrative French people suggested aloofness and to the average viewer of that era appeared as lacking the preferred sentimentality. Interspersed with dozens of variations on the maternal theme we find not only portraits but also some very charming figure studies of young women. In summing up Miss Cassatt's complete works there are more pastels than oils and more portraits and figure studies of women than there are of mothers and children. It is only because of her unique approach to the maternity theme that she is known primarily as a painter of mothers and children.

In 1892 she concentrated for long months on her mural (213) for the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago. It was to decorate the south tympanum in the Woman's Building, and the theme assigned to her was "Modern Woman." Mrs. Mary Fairchild MacMonnies was given the theme of "Primitive Woman" for the north tympanum. Miss Cassatt divided her composition into three parts separated by wide floral borders, interrupted by circles in which naked babies were pictured tossing fruit (215). She wrote that she went to the East for this idea of the border, but surely it derived from Correggio as well. For the large central area she chose as her subject "Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge and Science" (214). The fruit trees extend far back over a broad green meadow and the young women and children are seen under the trees busily collecting apples and cherries. The left panel, "Young Girls Pursuing Fame" (213), is more symbolic since fame is shown as a nude girl high in the air pursued by a group of three girls with outstretched arms who run forward followed by quacking ducks. The right-hand panel (213) is devoted to the arts of music and dancing. There are two seated figures, one with a banjo, one singing, while a third figure stands before them holding up her wide skirt, dancing. This mural was not well received and was evidently destroyed or, in any case, lost after the close of the exposition. It surely deserved much better treatment. Miss Cassatt, in describing it in a letter to Mrs. Potter Palmer, who had chosen her for the commission, wrote: "I have tried to make the general effect as bright, as gay, as amusing as possible. The occasion is one of rejoicing, a great National fête. I reserved all of the seriousness for the execution, for the drawing and painting. My ideal would have been one of those admirable old tapestries, brilliant yet soft."[10] Only one sketch (212) connected with the mural has so far come to light, and it is indeed bright and gay—a lovely, sun-filled study for the left-hand figure in the central group, pulling down a branch of the apple tree.

About a year before starting the mural Miss Cassatt had created a group of ten color prints which were then shown in her first one-man exhibition at Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1891. They were done, so she wrote, "with the intention of attempting an imitation of Japanese methods. Of course I abandoned that somewhat after the first plate and tried more for atmosphere."[11] In all of them linear delineation is of primary importance, offset by broad, flat patterns. The viewpoint is often from an unusually high level. Her absorption of such Japanese influences was so thoroughly studied and so completely understood that they became a part of her own artistic expression. We find them used throughout the Chicago mural as well. The figures stand out against the background with their contours sharply defined. The patterns of dresses, whether floral or striped, are flattened for decorative effect and the viewpoint is from above as though seen from a high ladder. She never was a landscape painter, but she depicted the sunny orchard with unusual skill while keeping the two side panels much flatter. The coloring was vivid throughout since that seemed necessary in order to be entirely visible from such a height. The mural was actually placed 40 feet above the floor where it must have been difficult to see it at all. The central section, however, was shown to the Durand-Ruel brothers before it left Paris and it received much praise from them.

Connected with the mural, but not actually a sketch for it, is Nude Baby Reaching for an Apple (216). The artist was at this time at the very height of her powers, having mastered the art of drawing as few of her peers had managed or cared to do. She gloried in the success of such sunny, happy works as this beautiful, healthy, sturdy baby on his mother's arm reaching up to pick some of the abundant fruit which fills the upper background of the picture. The same baby is seen in an exotic and decorative pastel entitled In the Garden (221), which is covered with a variety of orientally inspired patterns, except for the two startling, dark areas of the child's black-stockinged legs and feet and the mother's very full upper sleeve. The most significant painting related to her unique color prints, however, is The Bath (205) in the Art Institute of Chicago. Here we find the full gamut of her very subtle transference of Japanese print qualities achieving a rich blend of patterns, color contrasts, flattening of spaces, harmonious rhythms, and overall beauty of design and subject that sums up her most successful absorption of Japanese methods.

Wintering in Antibes in 1893–94, after the extensive days of very hard work necessary for both the color prints and the mural, Miss Cassatt was glad to relax. She then produced The Boating Party (230), one of her largest canvases aside from the mural. It, too, is full of air and sun and brilliantly contrasts the dark solid back of the oarsman with the light-filled figures of the mother and child against the bright blue water. Without doubt she was guided to this subject by the Manet painting of 1874 called In a Boat, which she knew well and persuaded the Havemeyers to buy for their collection.

Summertime (240) is another delightful work depicting a boating party filled with sunshine with bright accents of ducks in the water, whereas In the Park (239) features a nurse and child in a sunny outdoors scene with bright flower beds behind them. There are also from this year a number of splendid portraits; one of a distant cousin, young Margaret Sloane (220); one of her nephew, Gardner, called The Sailor Boy (208); one of Mrs. Havemeyer with her daughter Electra (248); and then the Little Infanta of her niece, also called Ellen Mary Cassatt in a White Coat (258). This last was done in oils; and three others are pastels. She used the two media interchangeably and was able to get equally solid, finished works from either medium. This was true also among her maternity subjects. The Peasant Mother and Child (232) and Woman from Martinique and her Child (223) are both pastels, both solidly constructed, but whereas the former is well finished and completely articulated throughout, the latter is much more of a sketch with sections drawn only in outline. We find among her pastels everything from a very slight sketch to a very finished work, whereas among her oils, with few exceptions, they are thoroughly completed works. A few of the exceptions, however, are worth noting since there is a short-hand eloquence about them that makes them outstanding. This is true of the Study of Mrs. Clement B. Newbold (288) and Sleeping Baby at Mother's Breast (310).

During the closing years of the century the artist continued to concentrate unremittingly on her work until the end of 1898. She produced at least thirteen subjects of mothers and children in the year 1897 alone, twelve of them in pastel, only one in oil. She was preparing for a journey home to America and had decided to take only her pastels with her. Typical of the group of pastels from the year before her journey is Two Sisters (259), and especially alluring is the oil called Breakfast in Bed (275), with its interesting arrangement of arms and legs against the brilliant white of the sheet and pillow and the bright green of the bed and stand. The well-rounded forms of the limbs are achieved with close, parallel brush strokes which follow the form and stress its solidity with remarkable force.

The trip home was very exciting for the artist. The last time she had seen her native country was in 1872. One reason for such a long interim was her dread of the ocean since it made her really ill. Another reason was her conviction that an artist needed to work in a fixed environment and not change it very often, and a third was the fact that until her mother died in 1895 her parents as ailing, old people, needed her near them. With the success of the Durand-Ruel exhibitions behind her—two in Paris and one in New York—and no close family ties to keep her any longer rooted to Paris and its environs, she crossed the dreaded ocean late in the autumn of 1898 and came home to see her many relatives and good friends. She first went to stay with her brother Gardner and his family. She felt more at home there than with her older brother Alexander since his wife and the artist had never been on friendly terms. While at the Gardner Cassatts' home outside of Philadelphia she made more charming likenesses of the children, Ellen Mary and young Gardner (286, 287, 302). Next she went to Boston to do portraits of the Hammond children, one of the daughter Frances (295), and another of the two little boys together (294). While at work on the latter she happened upon the older boy going out onto the Boston Common with his nurse. He was dressed in a green coat and tricorn hat, and Miss Cassatt was so delighted with his appearance that she did a pastel (293) of him alone and presented it to his parents. She visited other friends, including the Whittemore family, and did various pastel portraits. Among them the one of A Grand Lady (Mrs. John Howard Whittemore) (297) stands out, as well as the Grandmother and Grandson (296).

Back in Paris again during the spring of 1899 her good friends, who were also her dealers, Messrs. Charles, Joseph, and Georges Durand-Ruel, arranged to have her do a portrait of their sister Mme Aude and her two little girls (307). This proved to be a very strong, well-integrated work in pastel. It again contains evidence of her fine draftsmanship, her emphasis on strong contours and outlines, her concentration on the individual portraits, and her well-organized composition. Close to it in date and general approach is Mrs. Meerson and Her Daughter (308), which is another successful group portrait done with consummate skill.

She soon returned to her more customary maternal subjects, introducing a number of nursing mothers. Among them is a sketch of a baby alone who has fallen asleep while nursing (310). It is a sketch done with freedom and dash, a delightful impression, both truthful and full of instantaneous perception.

After 1900 a lighter touch appeared in her work. There was a rhythmic ease born partly of confidence but also reflecting less of the essence of her character and her strong personality. She seemed then to prefer working with somewhat older children and later remarked: "It is not worthwhile to waste one's time over little children under three who are spoiled and absolutely refuse to allow themselves to be amused and are very cross, like most spoiled children. It is not a good age, too young and too old, for babies held in the arms pose very well."[12] Among the older children she now chose Jules, a young boy of six or seven years, of whom she did more than five studies. One of him called The Oval Mirror (338) brought forth praise from Degas, who went over all of the details of the picture with her and expressed great admiration for it and then, as if regretting what he had said in praising it, relentlessly added that it was a little Jesus with his English nurse. Of greater interest, in my opinion, is The Garden Lecture (343), although even here one begins to feel a lack of complete concentration. The faces are modeled with care but the hands are not, although they are an important element in the composition. Of more consistent quality is Mother and Daughter, Both Wearing Large Hats (345) which is colorful and very well composed.

Notes:

[10] Julia Carson, 1966, p. 97.

[11] Unpublished letter to Mr. Weitenkampf, 18 May 1906, New York Public Library.

[12] Unpublished letter to Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 8 March 1909, owned in the Havemeyer family.

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