Mary Cassatt — Selected Paintings

  • Overview

    Mary Cassatt was born into an affluent family in Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the country's leading art schools. In addition to having regular exhibitions of European and American art, the faculty at the Academy encouraged students to study abroad. In 1865 Cassatt approached her parents with the idea of studying in Paris. Despite their initial objections, Cassatt's parents relented and allowed her to go.

    In Paris, Cassatt attended classes in the studios of the academic artists Jean Léon Gérôme and Thomas Couture. She also traveled extensively in Europe studying and copying old master paintings. In 1874 she settled permanently in Paris, where her work was regularly shown at the Salon, the annual government-sponsored exhibition. The following year she saw the pastel work of Edgar Degas, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement, in a gallery window. Years later, Cassatt described the importance of this experience, "I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

    Cassatt was one of a relatively small number of American women to become professional artists in the nineteenth century when most women, particularly wealthy ones, did not pursue a career. Her decision to study abroad reflects the strong character she displayed throughout her career. When Cassatt settled in Paris, an artistic revolution was already underway in France. Changes were occurring in the way that artists showed their work to the public, and in the freedom artists had to choose their own subjects and styles. Cassatt's career developed against the backdrop of these changes.

    Child in a Straw Hat, c. 1886, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.17

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  • In Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt demonstrates her powers of observation in showing her young subject sprawled in a large, blue armchair. The smartly dressed little girl fidgets; in the next chair is her sleeping dog. The girl's pose has the naturalism of childhood that would later characterize many of Cassatt's paintings of children.

    Pictorial structure and clarity are the foundation of Cassatt's art. Under Edgar Degas' tutelage, she began to collect and study Japanese prints; their patterns and asymmetric designs greatly influenced her work. Here she placed the girl, the focus of the composition, off-center. The armchairs form a pattern encircling an oddly shaped patch of gray floor in the middle of the picture. As in Japanese art, the forms are tilted up, and the edge of the canvas crops the image.

    Cassatt's strong colors and energetic brushwork mark her connection with the French impressionists. In style and subject matter, her art is close to that of Degas and Edouard Manet. Degas, in fact, made suggestions about the composition of this painting and reworked parts of its background.

    In Cassatt's pictures, light does not dissolve form. Instead, objects retain their mass and coherence with light enhancing their physical presence.

    Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.18

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  • This painting is the second of two portraits by Mary Cassatt thought to be of Mary Ellison. Cassatt painted the first in 1877, shortly after she met Miss Ellison through their mutual friend, Louise Waldron Elder (later Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, a well-known American art collector and a patron of Cassatt). Cassatt does not flatter but, rather, concentrates on Miss Ellison's contemplative mood.

    In this painting, Cassatt demonstrates her affinities with the impressionists. Her brushwork is open and sketchy, and she favors a strong compositional structure over pictorial detail. The mirror behind Ellison was a device the artist used often; its presence allowed the expansion of the composition's implied space to include areas that the viewer could not otherwise see.

    Miss Mary Ellison, c. 1880, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.95

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  • A cultivated woman, Mary Cassatt was at home at the theater and opera. In The Loge she depicts two elegantly dressed young women who sit primly in their theater box absorbed in the performance below. The figures are shown close-up, suggesting that we share both their vantage point and their experience of the performance. Reflected in a large mirror behind them, a glittering chandelier illuminates the tiers of gilded balconies that curve majestically around the auditorium. Aware that they are on view from the other boxes, the young women appear slightly self-conscious. One young woman retreats behind her fan. The other clutches her bouquet; her carefully neutral expression establishes a discreet emotional distance.

    Cassatt was as attentive to the formal qualities of composition as to the individualization of the figures. Here the sweeping lines of the balconies in the background and the spread of the open fan establish the pattern for this carefully organized composition. The curves are echoed in the black neck ribbon, the rounded shoulders, the arc of the bouquet, and the crystal chandelier. Eliminating details with loose brushwork and softly merging colors, Cassatt suggested rather than defined such elements as the flowers on the fan and the distant audience. Elsewhere, in the arms for example, she emphasized form by allowing the brushstrokes to follow contours and, at times, by using pure line to emphasize a particular shape. The resulting image is, at once, solid and evanescent.

    The Loge, 1882, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.96

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  • Children Playing on a Beach demonstrates Mary Cassatt's skill at capturing the natural attitudes of children. The intent expression on one child's face, the lowered angles of their heads, and the set of their shoulders suggest complete concentration on their activities. Especially appealing is the awkward way in which the toddler on the left grips the long handle of her shovel while holding the rim of the bucket with her other pudgy hand.

    Cassatt's interest in structure and strong sense of patterning comes through clearly in this painting. Her careful brushstrokes follow the contours of the girls' arms, legs, and heads, creating the solid areas of color typical of her work after 1883. To keep the center of attention on the little girls, Cassatt treated the seascape background more loosely; the boats on the ocean melt into a haze of natural light. She emphasized surface pattern by repeating the accents of dark dresses under crisp white pinafores.

    Children Playing on the Beach, 1884, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.19

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  • Girl Arranging Her Hair was greatly admired at the last impressionist exhibition, held in 1886. However, no one praised the painting more highly than Edgar Degas, who acquired the work for his own collection.

    Cassatt's theme is one that Degas himself often portrayed: a woman's toilette. Cassatt deliberately chose a plain adolescent as her subject so that appreciation of the painting would not depend on the beauty of the model. Clad in a loose chemise and seated before a washstand and mirror, she performs the routine task of coiling her hair. The girl's pose is awkward but natural, imparting grace and rhythm to the composition. The S-curve formed by her arms and the twist of her hair creates a fluid surface pattern.

    Recalling the lessons of the past when composing this picture, the painter looked back to the Renaissance for inspiration. To show the natural beauty of the young girl's gesture, Cassatt adopted the uplifted bent arm and turned head of Michelangelo's sculpture, The Dying Slave. Yet, the ambiguity of space, the overlapping patterns of furnishings and wallpaper, as well as the elevated angle of vision in this painting, all seem to come from another source--Japanese woodcuts. Cassatt was long an admirer of the bold style in Oriental prints. By 1886, when this picture was done, she had fully analyzed them and mastered their compositional strategies.

    Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.97

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  • Later in her career Mary Cassatt often painted the theme of a little girl wearing an oversized hat in poses similar to this one. However this child's serious expression sets the painting apart from other portraits. Most of the girls in Cassatt's paintings of children in hats appear to be willing and happy models; they smile and wear elaborate bonnets and frilly dresses. In Child in a Straw Hat, the little girl wears a plain, gray pinafore and a large, simple straw hat. Her furrowed brow and protruding upper lip suggest that she is impatient; she may have been taken away from her play in order to pose.

    Child in a Straw Hat, c. 1886, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.17

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  • Mary Cassatt had great respect for the art of Manet and Degas. Portrait of an Elderly Lady demonstrates her admiration for Edouard Manet through her use of large dark areas, near black, and warm flesh tones applied with the rich, broad brushstrokes typical of Manet's work.

    Although the identity of the sitter in Portrait of an Elderly Lady is unknown, she appears in other works by the artist. Cassatt paints the woman with characteristic candor, including gray hair and wrinkles. Sitting on a chintz upholstered slipper chair with her elbow slung across the top, her casual pose exudes self-confidence. The large, pink rose in her bonnet is a youthful symbol that brightens her dark attire.

    Portrait of an Elderly Lady, c. 1887, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.7

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  • The model in Woman with a Red Zinnia is an example of the type of figure who often appears in Cassatt's works; she is plain and sturdy, rather than glamorous or idealized. Cassatt often painted the local women who lived near her in the country, dressing them in clothes she bought in Paris.

    Woman with a Red Zinnia, which was exhibited at least once with the title Reverie, follows a Victorian tradition of depicting women in a dreamlike state. The artist's frank representation focuses attention on the sitter's contemplative mood.

    Woman with a Red Zinnia, 1891, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.99

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  • Mary Cassatt created The Boating Party in the winter of 1893/1894 at Antibes, on the Mediterranean coast in France. It is representative of Cassatt's finest period. Just two years earlier, as a mature and accomplished artist, she had had her first one-person exhibition in which her extraordinary series of ten color prints were shown. Among other exciting innovations, these works demonstrated the influence of her recent encounter with the Japanese prints exhibited at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890. In The Boating Party, the high horizon, off-center placement of figures, elimination of unnecessary detail, and preoccupation with surface patterns and contours also reveal this awareness of Japanese art.

    For the picture's subject matter Cassatt may have drawn upon Edouard Manet's Boating (1874, Metropolitan Museum of Art), a painting that she greatly admired. Like Manet, who himself admired Japanese woodcuts, she used a close-up view, with the nearest portion of the boat cut off at the edge of the image. But her dazzling color scheme and broad, flat brushwork are post-impressionist in flavor--the color preferences of Gauguin and Van Gogh.

    The composition of The Boating Party is, as in the most interesting of Cassatt's paintings, unconventional and arresting. The darkly clad figure of the boatman looms large in the foreground, almost appearing to project out of the canvas. The sail at left, the oar, and the bow of the boat all point to the head of the child who, in a pose typical of the artist, is shown sprawling gracelessly, yet naturally, in its mother's lap. Despite the simple subject and the centrality of the contented baby, the painting exudes a peculiar psychological intensity because of the enigmatic relationship between the figures so closely tied together in the composition. In conception, execution, and sheer size, this is surely Cassatt's boldest work.

    The Boating Party, 1893/1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.94

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  • Mother and Child represents a theme that Mary Cassatt often painted throughout her career as an artist. Creating complex, impressionistic lighting effects, a floor mirror reflects the scene in a hazy, indistinct manner.

    The models for Mother and Child may have been neighbors of Cassatt's near her country home outside of Paris. She often asked local women to sit for her, feeling that professional models posed self-consciously. For the sittings, Cassatt tended to dress the women in gowns she had bought from well-known Paris clothiers. As in most of her paintings, Cassatt does not glamorize or sentimentalize her subjects; instead she presents them as wholesome, attractive individuals.

    When Cassatt painted Mother and Child she was at the height of her artistic success. She drew on her many years of experience, working with ease and assurance. She captured the varying effects of light: pure strokes of green and gold suggest the sun flooding the artist's studio on a summer day, and glistening touches of pale yellow highlight hair, dress, and furniture.

    Mother and Child, c. 1905, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.98

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