Mary Cassatt’s Women Didn’t Sit Pretty

In the epic story of modern art, Mary Cassatt has been cast as the premier painter of mothers and babies. Yet she created a world in which no one ever changed a diaper or ran out of milk. Her paintings are set amid the privileged spaces of 19th-century parlors and gardens, where women sew or read or nurse an infant, uninterrupted by men. They typically wear bonnets and ankle-length dresses, bows and ruffles, and do not glance at us. Rather, they avert their eyes, consumed by their own thoughts.

Cassatt, who was born into enormous wealth in Pittsburgh and spent most of her life expatriated to France, fell out of fashion after her death, in 1926, at age 82. For decades she was dismissed as a paintbrush-wielding patrician unconnected to the make-it-new spirit of modern art. Yet at least since 1998, when the British feminist Griselda Pollock published the book “Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women,” Cassatt has been rehabilitated as a proto-feminist who supported women’s suffrage and experimented daringly in her work.

The approaching centennial of Cassatt’s death is inspiring a new round of exhibitions and books, and a reappraisal is welcome. “Mary Cassatt at Work,” the first major exhibition of her art in a generation, opens on May 18 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and will travel in the fall to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). The show will attempt to rebrand her as, of all things, a friend of labor.

Its theme — work with a capital W — is two-pronged, seeking to establish Cassatt as an exemplary professional and to “challenge the idea that her oeuvre focuses solely on moments of leisure,” as the curators Jennifer A. Thompson and Laurel Garber write in the accompanying catalog. They contend that the women in Cassatt’s paintings could only be accused of idleness by people who are ignorant about the wearying demands of child care and housekeeping.

Who was Mary Cassatt? She stood five foot six, with cool gray eyes and a confident, sometimes caustic manner. Born in 1844, she left home soon after the Civil War and settled in Paris. Rejecting the ways of women of her class (her brother Alexander became the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad), she never married or had children. Instead, she worked tirelessly at her art and found her way to the center of the French avant-garde. As the story goes, one day she admired a few radiant pastels of ballet dancers in a store window in Paris. Their creator, Edgar Degas, soon became a close friend and a foundational influence. He encouraged her to take up printmaking and, more generally, to jettison the stable, centered views of the past in favor of sharply angled perspectives — the radical cut or crop.

He also invited her to exhibit alongside his fellow French Impressionists; she was the only American to do so. For years, scholars hinted at a possible romance between Degas and his American disciple, who was a decade younger. But more recent research has focused on Cassatt’s relationships with women, including the American collector Louisine Havemeyer and Mathilde Valet, her longtime maid and companion. Cassatt’s will of 1911 bequeathed Valet a chunk of cash and a painting of her choosing. In a revised will that unsettled her relatives, Cassatt bequeathed Valet all of the artwork in her possession — some 300 paintings, drawings, pastels and prints.

Cassatt had a second career as an art adviser. She worked closely with Havemeyer, who lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue chock-a-block with masterworks, many of which wound up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her forthcoming book on Cassatt (“Mary Cassatt between Paris and New York”), the art historian Ruth E. Iskin stresses that Cassatt’s collecting activities were “a patriotic act” driven by her desire to enrich American museums and end this country’s reputation as an art wasteland.

As to the nature of Cassatt’s intimate relations, nothing is known. Letters, diaries, account books and calling cards were destroyed before or upon her death. For decades she lived and worked in the remote French countryside, at Beaufresne, a stone château with long rows of shuttered windows. The Philadelphia exhibition will open with a teasing comment of hers, from 1909, writ large on a wall: “What one would like to leave behind one is superior art, & a hidden personality.”

Judged in terms of inventiveness, Cassatt cannot be said to inhabit the same exalted plane as Degas or Manet. She belongs to the second tier of Impressionists. Nonetheless, she is one of America’s greats.

For starters, she produced her share of masterworks, especially in the field of experimental printmaking. In 1890, inspired by a Paris exhibition of a Japanese woodblock prints, she undertook a series of ten etchings that remain among the most striking images in 19th-century art. In “Woman Bathing,” in which the sinuous curve of a woman’s back gleams against a washy blue wall, she suffused the contours of Western self-care with the taut linearity and pancake flatness of Japanese art. “The Letter,” in which a dark-haired woman with thick lashes sits at a desk, sealing an envelope, similarly sets off an ingenious opposition between rich pattern and visual economy.

Although her paintings of mothers cooing at their babies might seem as unrehearsed as a snapshot, Cassatt stage-directed most of her scenes, hiring models and often pairing them with neighborhood babies of no relation. She was, in other words, creating fictions of contented domesticity, and tended to favor, among her models, stocky women and chubby babies.

Consider the smallish but potent “Maternal Caress” (1896). A mother in a mint green dress, her hair in a bun, is seen from the back gazing at her spirited little girl, an inquisitive child with gray eyes and lustrous waves of red hair, her face flushed from outside. Note the eloquent articulation of the girl’s plump fingers as they press into the flesh of her mother’s malleable-as-clay face. Is the girl trying to silence her mother, as some writers have contended, or is she instead reveling in their physical connection? In other words, is Cassatt here creating an electric emotional linkage or trying to visualize “the unwaged labor of mothers,” to borrow a phrase from the catalog?

Yes, of course, motherhood is work, lots of it. On the other hand, it’s hard to accept the premise that Cassatt’s paintings take as their subject the aches and infelicities of unpaid labor. Cassatt remained securely seated in the upper-class milieu from which she sprang. The idea of her as a champion of work seems especially strained when one recalls such genuine Impressionist odes to labor as Degas’s bone-weary laundresses ironing sheets, or Gustave Caillebotte’s “Floor Scrapers,” with its three hunched workers renovating an upscale apartment.

In trying to make sense of Cassatt’s work, it helps to know that her childhood was shadowed by illness and death. In 1851, when she was 7, her family sailed to Europe seeking medical help for an older brother, Robbie, who was suffering from a wasting disease believed to be bone cancer. After four years abroad and countless failed treatments, Robbie died in Germany, and the grieving Cassatt family promptly returned to the States.

His death came two days after Mary’s 11th birthday and represented an incalculable heartbreak for her. Of her five siblings, “Robbie was the closest to her in age and was her steady companion during the many moves of her childhood,” the art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews wrote in her pioneering 1994 biography of her artist. (Mathews is now writing an essay on Cassatt’s friendship with Berthe Morisot, the subject of an exhibition to be held next year at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.)

One might speculate that Cassatt, who witnessed so much sickness as a child, was spurred by feelings of loss to create a world in which mothers and children are forever infused with the glow of good health. While other Impressionists painted stylish people holding parasols and strolling through green landscapes, Cassatt preferred close-ups, and her main subject was the luminosity of flesh, rendered with a realist’s fanatic attention to skin tones and textures.

She painted men far less frequently, and far less vividly. Unlike her women, with their intertwined faces and hands, their figural entanglements, her men exude a sense of separateness. Her largest painting, the National Gallery of Art’s “The Boating Party” (1893-4) — it once graced a U.S. postage stamp — began as a homage to Manet’s “Boating,” which was owned by the Havemeyers. But, in place of Manet’s dashing oarsman, Cassatt creates a specter. Black-hatted and black-clothed, he is shown from the back in silhouette. Is he the partner of the female passenger and her baby, or is he a boatman-for-hire trapping them behind the sweeping diagonal of his wooden oar?

Some of her most memorable paintings are devoid of babies. “The Tea,” (1880), which is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is a tour de force of suppressed emotionalism. Two 40-ish matrons sit side by side on a small sofa, exchanging confidences in a parlor decorated in red-and-silver opulence. The women stare in different directions as they sip tea poured from a silver teapot. What are they discussing? They’ll never tell. They could have stepped out from the moneyed and ultra-discrete ranks of Edith Wharton’s fiction.

Most of the women in Cassatt’s work might seem to share a similar propriety. They do not smoke, drink alcohol or bat their lashes at the viewer. In contrast to the near-naked odalisques forever reclining on couches and beds in 19th-century art, Cassatt’s women are not only clothed but tend to have plain, sometimes homely faces and bodies that lean toward physical heft. By her own admission, she was uncomfortable painting the female nude, which she claimed existed solely as a sex object for male delectation.

Instead, she gave us something new in art. Women who are there for themselves and for each other, unwilling to squeeze their flesh into a constrictive corset. Or, to use the parlance of the moment, Cassatt embraced body positivity and the added radiance that can come from a few extra pounds.

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