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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

It was in 1901 that Miss Cassatt joined Mr. and Mrs. Havemeyer for a trip to Italy and Spain to gather art for the Havemeyer's collection. She was ambitious to see great art of the present and the past reach American collections, and this diverted her from giving full attention to her own work. Consequently her art suffered. It is rather amazing that in spite of this dividing of her interests the artist was able to complete so many canvases and pastels. Those many studies of little blonde Sara date mostly from that year (at least 25, interspersed with other studies posed with a mother and baby). Of these the culminating one is the pastel After the Bath (384) in the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1902 when she was in her late fifties, she produced The Caress (393) which she considered her most important painting of the first years of this century. It was Durand-Ruel who sent it to the Pennsylvania Academy for their 73rd annual exhibition where it was awarded the Lippincott Prize, which she refused. She wrote of her refusal as follows: "I was one of the original 'Independents'[13] who founded a society where there was to be no jury, no medals, no awards. This was in protest against the government salons, and amongst the artists were Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Mme Morisot, Sisley and I. This was in 1879, and since then we none of us have sent to any official exhibitions and have stuck to the original tenets. You see therefore that it is impossible for me to accept what has been flatteringly offered to me."[14]

The model used in The Caress (393) was Reine Lefebvre, who figured in many compositions both in oil and pastel during 1902 and 1903. The quick sketch of her head (395) is to me among Cassatt's most delightful sketches. Of many renderings of a little dark-haired girl, Margot Lux, the best is in Young Mother Sewing (415), a sunny painting in which the artist seems to recall the approach that she used in painting her mural. Somewhat less successful, but nevertheless charming, is a study of Margot usually entitled Spring (424). In 1903 the artist used another little blonde model about sixteen times, mostly alone, seated, wearing various bonnets and dresses. Typical of them is Simone in a White Bonnet Seated with Clasped Hands (No. 3) (441).

At some time during the early 1900s the dealer Ambroise Vollard approached Miss Cassatt offering to purchase some of the many pastels of these little girls if she would allow him to have counterproofs made of them which she would then finish. She evidently agreed to do so and the story of the counterproofs is a very interesting one. As far as I can ascertain they first appeared on the American market in the 1950s. After seeing a few and being puzzled by them, I learned from Henri Petiet in Paris that Ambroise Vollard did buy a group of at least 13 pastels and then persuaded the artist to allow him to have counterproofs made of them. This was done by the Paris lithographic printer Clot. He ran them through his press with a sheet of somewhat dampened paper over them so that some of the pastel came off onto the dampened sheet. Miss Cassatt's pastel technique was very much like Degas'. The pastel was applied very thickly with some parts steamed to make it penetrate farther into the paper. Consequently, the pastel was sufficiently thick so that even when some was taken off onto another sheet there was still plenty of it left. However, as M. Petiet told the story to me, Ambroise Vollard then persuaded Miss Cassatt to rework both the original, in case too much pastel was then missing from parts of it, and the counterproof which, of course, was the mirror image of the original. Four of the 13 counterproofs have found their way to the National Museum in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and they were seemingly never reworked thoroughly. In all four cases Miss Cassatt's original signature at the lower right appears on the counterproofs in reverse at the left. The four originals have had finishing touches added, however, darkening of shadows on the hair, detailing of costumes, darkening of eyes, adding of enclosing lines, etc. In the case of Nicolle and Her Mother (326) much more extensive shading was added to the background of the original.

If it is true that Vollard persuaded Miss Cassatt to do all of the rework on both the originals and the counterproofs, then both are originals and the signatures which were added were added by her. In all cases so far studied, however, the first original is the better of the two, with richer and more varied color and fewer rough, crude lines. It is easy to identify the counterproofs as such since Miss Cassatt was entirely a right-handed artist. Her lines of shading usually went from upper right to lower left. Repeated lines of shading from upper left to lower right therefore signify a counterproof.

The group of pastels from which the counterproofs were made are dated between 1889 and 1903. Just when the counterproofs were made we cannot determine. M. Petiet thinks that it was shortly after 1900, but since the counterproofing of all of them was done probably at the same time it must have occurred at some date after 1903 when the last of the originals was completed. We know that the artist sold a lot of her work to Vollard in 1906 and that may very well be the date for the counterproofs. It has seemed better, however, not to try to assign even an approximate date to them.

At the same time that these counterproofs were made, Vollard also had some counterproofs made of pastels by Renoir and Degas. It has been suggested that the idea was eventually to lithograph the counterproofs but, at least in the case of the Cassatts, this was never done. The 13 counterproofs are numbered as follows: 270, 313, 327, 365, 374, 376, 382, 427, 429, 439, 446, 449, 459.

Following this duplication of her pastels—mostly of little girls for which there was beginning to be a demand—the artist turned to more serious painting. The oil sketch of her niece, Ellen Mary (467), was done in 1905 as well as studies of her mother as a young girl (468, 469), evidently inspired by a daguerreotype. It must have intrigued her to take such a dated work of another era and make of it a contemporary study. Then, too, she had a new challenge in an invitation to do murals for the woman's lounge of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, statehouse, which was in the process of being built. She decided to do a group of tondo paintings to be hung over the doorways. We know that she completed two of them (471, 472), but she never carried out this assignment since she heard that there was much graft connected with the entire building and therefore would have nothing more to do with it.

The paintings of mothers and children continued, together with some portraits of friends. In 1908 she did a series of a mother with two children, one of which is still in the Cassatt family (502); another is in the White House collection at Washington (501). Among the portraits there are some of a neighbor's little girl about whom the artist wrote to Mrs. Havemeyer in October 1910: "1 am just finishing a little portrait [584] of my neighbor's little girl. He already has one in pastels of her [552] and another with her mother and little brother [554]. He does so love this child who is very pretty and a nice child and begged me to paint her this time. If all sitters were like her it would not be hard."[15]

She also did some portraits of Dikran Kelekian's son and daughter (511, 512, 570). He was a good friend whom she saw again in Egypt when she went there with her brother Gardner and his family in 1911. She respected Kelekian as a very knowledgeable connoisseur of Near Eastern Art and bought some handsome Persian manuscripts from him; he in turn owned some of her finest early paintings. He wrote about her in 1939: "She was very discerning and I had the most profound respect for her, because I have never seen an artist with such a comprehensive knowledge of the art of all periods, combined with such an exquisite taste. We did not always agree, of course, for she had no use for Lautrec and others whose work I love to have, but it was not her eyes that were at fault; I think that she really objected only to his subject matter since she was really still a little bit a 19th-century American Lady."[16]

In about 1908 her painting technique seemed to change somewhat and she applied her paint more thickly. This is evident in Mother and Child in a Boat (524) and with some of the seven studies in preparation for it. It is less apparent in the oil studies of the series of the model Françoise, of which there are fourteen (525–38) altogether in oil and pastel. But in many of the later oils there is a lack of precision in drawing and a roughness of brush work that weakens them considerably. This is true of Mother and Child Smiling at Each Other (506–08) and even more so of the painting of Two Mothers and Their Nude Children in a Boat (580) of 1910. Miss Cassatt was by then 66 years old. She had always been very strong physically, with much vitality and no visible sign of aging. It was said of her that her physique was as rugged as her will was strong. She was tall, thin, very aristocratic and usually dressed in black, as we see her in the photograph taken for Segard's biography in 1912. But after the disastrous trip to Egypt, as a result of which her brother Gardner died, she had a discouraging and barren time for almost two years. She was ill and depressed and did no work at all during a part of 1911 and 1912. She was also losing her eyesight. It was then that her biographer, Achille Segard, visited her while working on his book, and thought that her days of active work were over. In 1913, however, she made what can be considered a valiant effort to resume her career. The work which she accomplished in 1913 and 1914 is all in pastel. Because of her blurred vision, due to cataracts which became inoperable, her sense of color dimmed. The colors became increasingly harsh and strident, which hampers the quality in every case, and yet she thought that they were her very best works. Two of them went into the Havemeyer collection and are now at the Metropolitan Museum (599, 600). After this last spurt of work she stopped entirely but lived on alone throughout World War I, staying mostly at Grasse on the Riviera. Her loyal companion-maid, Mathilde Vallet, a German Alsatian, was interned for some time, although Miss Cassatt had ferreted her away to Northern Italy at the start of the war. During the last years of her life Mathilde was her mainstay, having been off and on in her service for over 40 years. Upon the artist's death in 1926 she left all the art works in her studio to this faithful companion.

Aside from Miss Cassatt's work in painting and pastel, her watercolors and drawings must also be considered, although neither of these media seems to have been as sympathetic to her as painting, pastel, or printmaking. Among the watercolors so far found, the early self-portrait (618) is a vivid work as revealing in its way as the gouache of the same year. Many of the sketches of mothers and children are mere notes for possible compositions. Two of them (622, 623), carried farther than most, are studies for the painting in the Cincinnati Art Museum (153). Another group, including nine sketches (637–46), were all done in preparation for the White House painting (501) or for Children Playing with a Dog (502), owned in the Cassatt family. Included are sketches of individual heads of the mother and of the little girl as well as both of them together, and finally of the group of three. Of the model Françoise there are eleven studies (652–62), the most interesting being the two studies of her sewing. In the three sketches (679–81) for the Petit Palais painting of Two Mothers and Their Nude Children in a Boat, the interest is centered on the broadly treated mapping of the composition.

Miss Cassatt's drawings stand as a fascinating survey of her entire career. Starting with her first hesitant attempts they continue to grow constantly more assured and in some cases attain a fine degree of brilliancy, as in the study (818) for Young Women Picking Fruit and the study (777) for the baby in The Family. For the most part they are working drawings for works in other media, especially for prints. Many were used for getting a drawing onto a plate covered with soft ground, usually a tallow ground. Over this grounded plate was spread a sheet of drawing paper on which the artist had sketched a design, then the design was redrawn and the firm pressure of the pencil caused the soft ground to adhere to the back, or verso, of the paper so that it pulled away from the metal plate when the paper was lifted off. The soft ground thus adhering to the paper is a brown color which can be seen on the back of many of Miss Cassatt's drawings, and in some cases the color even shows on the top or recto side of the paper in spots (see 716 and 717).

In many of these working drawings the paper has been folded around a copper plate. In those cases the measurements have been taken to the edges of the folds. In some instances the soft-ground prints, usually used with aquatint, exist and can be compared with the drawings; but with many others no prints have been found so far that relate to the drawings. We may conclude, therefore, that after setting the drawing onto the plate the artist decided not to finish the print. Many of these working drawings are in the collection of Henri Petiet, who obtained them from Ambroise Vollard, who, in turn, received them from the artist. Most of them date from the 1880s, during her most interesting formative years.

Another group of the soft-ground drawings (800–16, 820) was used in the formation of Miss Cassatt's great series of color prints, ten of which were done for her first Durand-Ruel one-man show of 1891. For some of them there are two or more preparatory sketches before the drawing that was used to put the soft-ground lines onto the plate. These are all strong drawings, full of vitality and a quality of line that is absolutely sure and decisive. They were done when she was at the height of her powers, and they are masterworks, as are the great color prints of which they were a part. The finest of the entire group of color prints was The Toilette, and it is strange that for that print no drawings have so far been found. It was in connection with this print that Degas is supposed to have remarked that he would not admit that a woman could draw that well. There are also no sketches with color notations for any of the series of color prints. This means either that she destroyed them, that they have been lost, or that she never made any, which is quite possible since, with her remarkable visual memory, she could easily have envisioned the color areas and retained the color composition in her mind.

For some of her later drypoints there are also preparatory drawings which were used to place the design onto the copper plate. On the backs of these we sometimes find blue tracing-paper marks. There are not as many portrait sketches among her drawings as one might expect. Aside from those of her mother, her father, and of young Robert we find very few. Worth studying, however, are the three drawings (855–57) of Mme Ley Fontvielle, a spiritualist medium. The first of these is a very lively quick sketch. The second is a working drawing for a drypoint, and the third a more finished drawing, done very carefully, and which, without doubt, was a good likeness. The three drawings of Katharine Kelso Cassatt as a young girl (911–13) are also of special interest. They are studies for the painting which the artist did in 1905.

There are three drawings (923–25) for the White House painting of the Mother Looking Down, Embracing Both of Her Children as well as the nine watercolor sketches, which indicates that the artist concentrated on that painting, considering it a milestone in her career. The drawings, however, show the weaknesses which became constantly more pronounced until in the last drawings of 1913 it is easy to see why she was forced by her lack of eyesight to stop working entirely within the ensuing year.

She lived through the remaining twelve years of her long life interesting herself in politics, advising young art students and insisting proudly in spite of her deep appreciation of France and its rich traditions that she was American, thoroughly American.

Notes:

[13] Both Degas and Cassatt wanted to call their struggling group of advanced painters the Independents rather than the Impressionists, but the latter title, introduced in scorn, has continued to be used to describe them.

[14] Julia Carson, 1966, p. 132.

[15] Unpublished letter to Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 24 October 1910, owned in the Havemeyer family.

[16] Art News Annual, 1939, vol. 37, no. 2 (1939), p. 68.

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