Art media

Thoughts on various artistic mediums, why use pastel, part 24

Mary Cassatt-Pastels from the 1890s

Some time ago we started an exploration of two-dimensional artistic media and focused on the lesser-known medium of pastel. Currently we are looking at a second famous pastellist, Mary Cassatt (Rosalba Carriera from Venice which has already been discussed at length was the first.) The origins of pastels can be traced back to northern Italy during the Renaissance, including the works of Da Vinci itself. continuing into the Rococo era, after which the use of pastels faded until its rediscovery by Degas and Whistler, two important impressionists, as well as today’s artist-Mary Cassatt.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) was born in Alleghany City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) and lived most of her adult life in France where she became one of the main female members of the movement. impressionist and a close friend of Edgar Degas. To this day we have covered Cassatt’s life through his early successes as a freelance American artist living in Europe in the 1870s through his growing frustration with the politics of the Paris Salon until the early 1880s. when Cassatt joined the Impressionist movement following an invitation from Degas to join their 1878 exhibition and at that time they worked intensely together on a Journal project which was never completed, although they were to stay friends for life. By the 1890s Cassatt had become a powerful artist through her own highly developed skills, including her experiences with printmaking which were heavily influenced by an exhibition of Japanese masters, and by 1894 Cassatt had purchased Chateau Beaufresne where she and his family was for the rest of his life.

While Cassatt is perhaps best known for her female-focused portraits and figurative art – usually those from her privileged background – depicting their daily lives with their young children, having tea, reading, she was also one of the Impressionist’s most inventive artists. movement and beyond. Cassatt worked on multiple media, including pastel, rediscovered at the end of the 19th century. Our exploration of Cassatt began from a look at pastel artists, but Mary Cassatt, as one of the few famous female artists, deserves a close examination of her portfolio and her life. Cassatt’s early years of artistic exploration in the 1870s were also a time when pastel experienced a renaissance after nearly a century of being rejected as the best-suited medium for small color studies and a personal use. This rediscovery of the merits of pastel began with the Independents, who revolted against the Academy in the 1860s, followed by the more formally organized Impressionists whom Cassatt had joined in 1877 with the encouragement of his lifelong mentor and friend, Edgar. Degas. Additionally, Cassatt had already been intrigued by pastels from the moment she saw Degas’ pastels on display in a gallery window.

Pastels were the perfect medium for Cassatt, as the medium appealed to her modernist style (as opposed to the classic style) with the ability of pastel for quick execution. The wide array of ready-made pastel color sticks meant Cassatt could also create rich layers of color and bold contrasts. The fact that a draftsman style was easily possible and that pastel also allowed for wide pictorial manipulation were additional positives. As a dry medium, pastel allowed the Impressionists the immediacy of expression that characterized the movement’s signature intention; In addition, the texture of the pastels reflects light in a way suited to the Impressionists’ fascination with the representation of natural light. The unvarnished matte surface of these works also implied a veracity or frankness that opposed the fiercely rigid style of the academic establishment.

Cassatt, Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, 1895 Pastel.
Cassatt, Pink Belt 1898, pastel.

Cassatt rejected the idea that pastels were only suitable for study and began offering them as finished works, suitable for inclusion in his exhibitions.

Not only was Cassatt’s take on how to handle pastel unique, she was good at it. In this series of works from the 1890s, Cassatt’s handling of pastel matured. Close examination of children’s skin in “Nurse Reading to a Little Girl” or “Pink Sash” reveals hundreds of spots of electric blue, especially on children’s faces. From a distance these tones are barely visible in work, but just like in real life, those blue tones that naturally underlie our skin are present in her work. These same tones also bounce in the greens of the background, one of the children’s and reader’s clothes. Additionally, both works have a range of smooth, finely defined finish areas (especially in skin tones as well as faces and hair) and bolder rougher sections that are closer to designer quality. Cassatt’s technique allows the viewer to see the structure on which Cassatt built his images. And its colors are glorious: meerschaum, gold and cotton candy pink, teal, tea green and ocher. And inside each of those color blocks are more colors!

Cassatt, Madame Gaillard and her daughter Marie-Thérèse, 1899, pastel.
Cassatt, Two Sisters, pastel 1896.

Cassatt in the early 1870s, when she first freed herself from the rigidity of the Academy, spent a lot of time portraying family members – who are so much easier to catch because they’re there. . One of his first entries in the Impressionist Exhibitions was a portrait of Madame Cassatt reading a newspaper. Two exquisite pastel portraits from the 1890s are of couples of sisters and a mother and eldest daughter. “Madame Gaillard and her daughter Marie Thérèse” have rich dark colored clothes, the tones of which are reflected in Marie’s darker hair while the red of Madame’s red hair is reflected in her cheeks, chin and ears with a folder pulling color into the background and notice how the white lines and shadows of their clothes are visible on their skin. Similar harmonies of movement of colors appear in the work “Two Sisters”. The sisters recall handling some of her previous oils, especially “Lydia with a pearl necklace in the lodge” and one wonders if these two sisters are her and her sister Lydia.

Read more about pastels and the later years of Cassatt’s painting career, which focused heavily on studies of the mother and unborn child – works well known and loved.

Janet Cornacchio is a member of the Front Street Art Gallery, president of the Scituate Arts Association and real estate agent. You can contact her at [email protected]