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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (7/3/2023)

(Review of Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman)

Having previously entrusted Ali Ray with Frida Kahlo (2020), Exhibition on Screen retains her services for its second profile of a female artist, Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman. Not that the American Impressionist liked the term `woman painter', as she spent a lifetime campaigning for equal rights and for a radical shift in the depiction of women in art.

According to Nicole Georgopulos, the curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Mary Cassatt is a difficult artist who has been edged out of the frame by chauvinist scholars. Yet she set out to show women as active and engaged figures rather than just passive models and works like `Woman With a Sunflower' (c.1905) need to be closely viewed in order to ascertain their meaning.

Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania on 22 May 1844, Cassatt was raised in a well-heeled family of Franco-Irish descent. Art historian Nancy Mowll Matthews and Anna O. Marley, curator of Historical American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, explore her privileged upbringing in Philadelphia. Determined to be an artist after travelling to Europe and seeing fine paintings in the homes of her family's friends, she signed up for classes at the Pennsylvania Academy at the age of 15.

Frustrated by the lack of quality teaching and restrictions that meant she couldn't attend life classes, Cassatt persuaded her mother to accompany her to Paris, when she was 21. Kimberly A. Jones, the curator of 19th-century French Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, reveals how she sought out a teacher because she was barred from the École des Beaux Arts. She was fortunate in being taken on by Jean-Léon Gérôme, a respected classical artist. However, she also learned much through her daily visits to the Louvre, where she met lots of other women who aspired to exhibiting at the Salon.

Sue Roe, the author of The Private Lives of the Impressionists, and Jennifer Thompson, the curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art explain how the French art scene worked in the 1860s. They also mention how the Salon des Refusés kicked against the system from 1863. But Cassatt was unable to participate in café culture and took herself off to an artistic colony at Ecouen, where she came under the influence of genre painter Thomas Couture and started painting scenes of rustic life. Among her best-known works from this period was `The Mandolin Player' (1868), which bears the influence of Camille Corot. This was accepted by the Salon and is one of the few works from this period that have survived. However, her next submissions were rejected and she retreated Stateside after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Unable to make her mark in Philadelphia, she tried her luck in Chicago, only for several paintings to be lost in the 1871 fire. Thus, when Bishop Michael Domenec commissioned her to copy Corregio's `Madonna and Child With Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene' (1526-28) in Parma, she readily returned to Europe in the company of fellow artist, Emily Sartain.

Provided with a studio, Cassatt found a niche in Parma's artistic community and attended classes with renowned teachers. She also painted `Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival' (1872), in which Georgopulos detects the influence of Corregio and Caravaggio, as well as Édouard Manet, as she seeks to combine classic and modern methods. She draws attention to the challenge posed by the bent arm of the foreground figure and suggests that this problem solving testified to Cassatt's ambition to become a great artist.

Having spent time studying in Madrid and Seville, Cassatt produced `On the Balcony' (1873) in homage to Spanish art. This was her first picture to include a male figure and Jones notes that the flirtation is making the two women uncomfortable and her future work would frequently comment on gender politics and the experience of being a woman.

Deciding to settle in Paris, Cassatt made repeated submissions to the Salon. Her 1874 canvas, `Ida', caught the eye of Edgar Degas, who recognised her as a kindred spirit. She was also fascinated by `Rehearsal of the Ballet' (c.1876) and recorded how she had pressed her nose against the window of the shop in which it was exhibited in order to absorb its lessons. They finally met in 1877 and became close friends, with Degas painting her portrait in 1883. Cassatt also accepted his invitation to break from the Salon and exhibit with the Impressionists (or Independents, as they preferred to be known).

Around the time she painted `Portrait of the Artist' (1878), she wrote about the sense of liberation she felt on joining a group that also included Berthe Morisot. She was also collaborating with Degas, who worked on the background of `Little Girl in a Blue Armchair' (1878), which Jones notes has realist and impressionist elements in depicting a cross child flopping down in a chair.

By this time, Cassatt's parents and older sister Lydia had joined her in Paris. She was the subject of `Portrait of Miss C. Lydia Cassatt' (1880) and would regularly join her sister and Degas on shopping expeditions and theatre trips. The newly built Opéra helped make theatre-going fashionable and people watching amused Cassatt as much as the entertainments. Among her 11 contributions to the 1879 Impressionist show was `In the Loge' (1878), which shows a woman gazing out from an opera box from behind her fan. She would return to the subject in `The Loge' (c.1878-80), `In the Loge' (1878), and `In the Box' (c.1879), which Georgopulos claims reveals the philosophical nature of her painting, as she explored the line between illusion and reality.

She also examines `Woman With a Pearl Necklace in a Loge' (1879), which depicts Lydia smiling happily in an off-the-shoulder gown. Her back is visible in a mirror that also reflects a chandelier and Georgopulos mentions that Manet would borrow the same effect for `A Bar At the Folies-Bergère' (1882).

As we see `Woman With a Fan' (c.1878-79), Jones reveals that the 1879 show was a success and that Cassatt was praised by the critics. Buoyed by the positive reception, Degas proposed a journal of monochrome prints, such as `Mary Cassatt At the Louvre. The Etruscan Gallery' (1879-80). As Laurel Garber, the curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explains, Cassatt took to print-making with items like `The Visitor' (c.1880), and benefitted from collaborating with Degas. Jones also commends `In the Opera Box (No.3)' (c.1880), in revealing that the journal never materialised and her mother (who is seen in `Lydia and Her Mother At Tea', 1882) blamed Degas, whom she didn't particularly like.

Artist Bronwen Bradshaw demonstrates the etching technique while discussing Cassatt's proficiency. She later mastered aquatints, which introduced colour to the process. At the 1880 Impressionist exhibition, Cassatt submitted as many prints as pastels and paintings, with some being unfinished (to the disapproval of the critics). But items like `Waiting', `The Corner of the Sofa' (both c.1879) and `Lady in Black, in a Loge, Facing Right' (c.1880) displayed a new confidence. She also started to make sales through dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and was very much part of the New Woman movement seeking to change the dynamic of a patriarchal society. Yet Jones notes that she made a virtue of depicting domestic scenes that showed the centrality of women, such as `Katherine Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren' (1880), `The Cup of Tea' (c.1880-81), `Young Woman Sewing in a Garden' (1880-82), and `Woman With a Red Zinnia' (1891). She highlights details like the placement of hands and the interaction of characters to communicate their intellect and their internal lives with an insight that is uniquely womanly.

Georgopulos admits that Cassatt doesn't make it easy for viewers to get inside works like `Five O'Clock Tea' (c.1880), as one woman is gazing off in profile, while her guest covers her face in sipping from her cup. Jones suggests that Cassatt is coercing viewers into pausing to consider the composition and try to work out why these women are behaving in such a manner. An extract from Cassatt's writings explores the complexity of hitting upon a subject, finding a model, and deciding upon colour schemes, as `The Reader' (c.1878) and `Reading Le Figaro' (1878), which respectively feature Lydia and Katherine.

Thompson alights upon the fact that Le Figaro was a serious political newspaper and that the choice to have her mother reading this rather than a novel is quite deliberate. Georgopulos concentrates on the fact her hands are reflected in the mirror as a symbol of dynamism, while Jones focusses on the subtle gradations of white in the sitter's dress, which show off Cassatt's growing mastery of her art.

Further examples of Cassatt showing the talents that women have can be found in `Lydia Crocheting in the Garden At Marly' (1880) and `Lydia At a Tapestry Frame' (c.1881). Her sister was also included in `A Woman and a Girl Driving' (1881), which became a prized family possession as Lydia died in 1882 and Thompson notes how the picture was ahead of its time by showing a woman holding the reins, while the male groom sits impassively behind her.

By the early 1880s, the Parisian art market was stagnating and Cassatt used her American connections to get Durand-Ruel introductions to potential buyers. Art historian Flavie Durand-Ruel recalls how this internationalised Impressionism just as internal wranglings broke the group apart. But Cassatt featured prominently at the final 1886 exhibition, with `Girl Arranging Her Hair' showing her edging towards a new style. Over `Denise At Her Dressing Table' (c.1908-09), Jones notes how Cassatt brings personal knowledge to the subject and refuses to sexualise it.

Heavily influenced by the 1890 exhibition of Japanese art at the Beaux Arts, Cassatt embarked upon a series of prints depicting everyday scenes. `Woman Bathing State ix/x', `The Coiffure', `The Lamp', `The Fitting', `Afternoon Tea Party', and `Woman Bathing State iii/iv' (all 1890-91) all have an eloquent simplicity that made them hugely popular. As we see `The Letter' and `Maternal Caress', Jones and Garber describe how she swapped woodblocks for aquatinting and produced lustrous colours. Over `In the Omnibus', Georgopulos reveals that she insisted on selling the prints as a set to maximise her profits.

She also reflects on the mural commissioned by Bertha Palmer for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This triptych was her largest work depicting `Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science', `Young Girls Pursuing Fame', and `Arts, Music, Dancing'. However, as it was destroyed when the Woman's Building was demolished, it's only possible to see it through preparatory drawings. Among them are `Child Picking a Fruit', `Gathering Fruit', and `Young Women Picking Fruit' (all 1893) and she defended a decision that appalled Degas to contribute to a women's only pavilion because it celebrated female freedom and creativity.

From a distance, Cassatt supported the suffrage movement in the United States, but never felt tempted to leave France, even after she fell out with Degas. Her primary theme during this period was mothers and children and Thompson avers that paintings like `The Child's Bath' (1893) and `Mother Playing With Child' (c.1897) had a socio-political subtext. Over `Sleeping Baby' (c.1910), she also reveals that Cassatt could be quite sharp with young models who didn't behave, while Georgopulos states over `Breakfast in Bed' (1897) that she didn't shy away from capturing childish caprice.

As we see `Mother and Child' (c.1899) and `The Crocheting Lesson' (c.1902), Thompson accepts that the paintings have been underestimated because they were used on greetings cards. But she shows how they rework classical Madonna and Child pictures and Mathews points to Michelangelo and Raphael in dismissing accusations that Cassatt was unqualified to depict maternal feelings as she had remained unmarried.

Durand-Ruel always had ready buyers for things like `Young Mother Sewing' (1900) and `Kneeling in an Armchair' (c.1903). But Jones thinks she has been marginalised by art historians who consider her a one-trick pony. Moreover, they ignore her significance in coaxing American collectors into acquiring Impressionist works and her legacy should reflect the fact that many major museum collections are indebted to her and Louisine Havemeyer, whom she painted with her daughter, Electra, in 1895.

As her sight started to fail, she created bright pastels like `The Crochet Lesson' (1913). But the loss of many friends and the outbreak of the Great War had a negative effect and she ceased working in 1914. She continued to have an impact, however, with the proceeds from a 1915 exhibition in New York going to the suffrage movement. Georgopulos points out that she discovered the significance of the bloom in `Woman With a Sunflower', as it was the symbol of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Cassatt died at the age of 82 on 14 June 1926 at Château de Beaufresne. She was grateful to have been able to experience joy through her work and, co-writing with producer Phil Grabsky, Ali Ray ably conveys this sense of dedication and vocation. She is splendidly abetted in this regard by her assembled experts, who speak with precision and passion about Cassatt's work, while also detailing the hurdles she had to overcome in succeeding in a man's world.

As always with Exhibition on Screen, the attention paid to the paintings is laudable, while short reconstructions featuring Ella Grabsky at Cassatt reinforce the contention that she brought intimate knowledge to the subjects she painted and invested them with symbols that counter any charges of sentimentality, particularly in the mother and child titles that she used to ennoble women's work and remind men of its often overlooked importance.

More might have been made of her artistic contretemps with Degas and her relationships with Berthe Morisot and their fellow Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond. But this is an admirable introduction that does much to restore Cassatt to her rightful place in the history of 19th-century French art.

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