Mary Cassatt – Pastels – Late Years / Studies of Mother and Child
Some time ago we started an exploration of two-dimensional artistic media and focused on the lesser-known medium of pastel. Currently, a continuing look at a second famous female pastellist, Mary Cassatt (Rosalba Carriera of Venice which has already been discussed at length was the first.) Era, after which the use of pastels faded until its rediscovery by Degas and Whistler, two important impressionists, as well as our continued exploration of 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 a leading female member of the Impressionist movement and a friend. close to Edgar Degas. To date, we have covered Mary’s life from her early successes as a freelance American artist living in Europe in the 1870s to her growing frustration with the Paris Salon politics in the late 1870s and his joining the Impressionist movement after Degas’ invitation to join their 1878 Exhibition. A common Diary project they were pursuing at the time led to a long-standing friendship. The 1890s found Cassatt recognized as a powerful artist based on the strength of her own highly developed skills, including her experiences with printmaking which were heavily influenced by an exhibition of Japanese masters. It was in 1894 that Mary bought Château Beaufresne where she and her family spent the summer for the rest of her life. From the late 1880s to the 1900s, Cassatt developed his signature style – an intricate Modernist style with areas deliberately left unfinished as well as high-level drawing – and portraits of subjects, especially mother and child. – for which she is most famous.
Today, a study of a famous example of the work of Mary’s mother and child, recently restored and part of the Metropolitan collection and a look at the work from a primarily artistic point of view. From the 1890s Cassatt developed a passion for the mother-child relationship and from 1900 it was the main subject of her work. Mother and Child (1914), one of his last pieces, illustrates Cassatt’s interest in not only creating a portrait, but experimenting with a variety of techniques, some of which were discussed last time, such as the contrast of carefully rendered finished areas of his work, areas that often demonstrate a luminous quality, with areas intentionally left incomplete. Then, too, Mary also demonstrated her innate and well-honed drawing skills, here and in most of her works.
Mother and Child begins with the deliberate use of complementary colors: the purple of the mother’s dress against the bright green background.
Add vibrant pink skin tones that oppose the blue undertones of both the skin and the dress.
Early critics called her shades dirty, but in reality the use of shades was an outgrowth of her studies in Italy where she saw its use by Italian primitives from the late 13th to 15th centuries.
Cassatt’s mature work was often daring, seeking new ways to express what she saw and felt. And there is the beginning of a modernist perspective: the artist seeks to convey his reaction to what he has seen. In the lower corner under the mother’s entwined arm, Mary left a trace of her precise charcoal drawing, not bothering to hide it, choosing instead to apply broken, unblended, overlapping strokes. She also chose to use her blue underlay along the child’s arms, back and buttocks in the mother’s arms. Her face also lacks the refined touch of her early portraits, Cassatt instead focusing on the contrast between the pinks of the skins and the greens and purples of the work. The rendering of the face and dress has an abstract quality, not found in the flesh and sleek, shiny hair of his earlier work. The fabric of the dress features bold pops of red, orange and blue, and even the pattern of the white border, reminiscent of a Greek key, is more suggestive than illustrative.
Cassatt’s collaboration with Degas may have introduced her to her technique for creating luster in the hair and skin tones of her subjects with her use of moisture which compacted the pastel powder into a solid, shiny surface. However, Mary’s vision was different. Its objective was to amplify the play of light on the surface of the work. According to a study of her work done during the restoration by the Met’s Department of Paper Conservation, Cassatt appears to have sifted crushed pastel onto a steam-softened surface creating differences in texture. Cassatt’s goal was to create an irregular surface with scraped pastel particles on a steam-moistened surface. Cassatt selected the most brilliantly colored areas of the artwork for this textural effect – the pink skin tones and the green background – and accentuated the color contrast with pops of pale gray pastel. While effective, the resulting surface was very brittle, which may be part of why the restoration was necessary and also why Cassatt apparently never repeated this experiment.
Next time, an exploration of Cassatt as a feminist.