With Mary Cassatt Painting In Paris, pictures like The Boating Party, while colorful and warm, are a paradox.
By David Stone
Blue water and bright yellow of a boat’s interior match an ornament on the main figure’s hat. The painting is eye-catching with little precise detail. Color fields play well together.
It’s easy to accept as another impressionist masterpiece of flashing color and design. Until you look long enough at the figures.
Everyone in the little boat is detached from the others. Even the baby in the woman’s lap looks aside while the mother stares pensively, even apprehensively, in direction of the muscular rower. The rower looks away.
Such are the pitfalls when you take Mary Cassatt’s paintings lightly. The painting’s title The Boating Party tells us that the people are who we should be looking at, but they are an open book that can’t be read, a mystery.
An Early Masterpiece
Another interesting look is Little Girl In A Blue Armchair.
A year after her paintings’ rejection by the conservative Paris salon, Cassatt created one of the oddest pictures of a child’s frustration imaginable.
Even the little girl’s dog looks bored. The child slumps so severely her dress has hiked up to her waist. She doesn’t care.
This painting is important because it’s seen as a reflection on Cassatt’s own childhood.
Her family was wealthy, but she faced resistance, especially by her father. She wanted to paint. He was willing to pay for her upkeep but not her art supplies.
Did her frustration with the almost all male salon bring back memories that show up in the painting?
A Look At Mary Cassatt’s Family Paintings
Mary Cassatt never married, and she had no children. Yet, her paintings of children and motherhood are sensitive and loving.
When it comes to motherhood, it’s almost as if a romantic ideal denied her a critical eye.
In Breakfast In Bed, we see an idealized family situation. Mother and daughter pass a morning lost in each other’s love.
Apart from tender paintings of her sister, Lydia, with whom she was close, few of Cassatt’s paintings show anything worse than uncertainty.
Cassatt did not make pictures of women with work outside their homes. Her stars are mothers and playful little girls. The bored little girl in the chair with her dog was an exception.
But Mary Cassatt supported the suffrage movement. She remained active with it until her death. She added arguments and arts to the cause, even after she was too blind to work as a painter.
Still you never see women on the job. Her paintings are of what we now call “stay at home moms,” which virtually all of them were in her circle, except Mary herself.
For Mary Cassatt, a Move Away from Painting in Paris
The oddest thing in Cassatt’s life came when this rebel from the 1870s went establishment in the new century. She turned hostile to the art movements that were overtaking impressionism as forces, including post impressionism, fauvism and cubism.
In 1904, she received the French Legion of Honor, although recognition in America never reached that peak.
One great legacy in her home country was the Havemeyer Collection, paintings on which she advised her friend, Louise Havemeyer. Havemeyer was a member of a wealthy and politically prominent New York family, and the heart of this collection, representing an insider’s view of the Impressionist Movement, was later donated to Metropolitan Museum
The greatness of Mary Cassatt’s painting lives on, but it’s likely that few visitors strolling lovingly through the National Gallery or in the Met are aware of the struggle this personally powerful woman took on to produce such gentle and beautiful work.