Blurring with the Wolves



At the MFA

Through May 9

As a successful painter, indeed the only American and one of very few women to have ever exhibited with the Impressionists, Mary Cassatt could certainly be called a major woman artist. Yet the title of the exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, seems somewhat paradoxical. For Mary Cassatt, being modern meant choosing her own path and creating works of art often strikingly different from the Impressionist "standard." Like her male counterparts, she departed from traditional subjects, but only a few of her works portray the public scenes or working people so common among other Impressionists. Instead, the vast majority of Cassatt's paintings show scenes from the private lives of women and children, employing the softness of Impressionistic style to convey tender feminine moments and quiet times in the household.

The nearly 100 paintings, pastels and prints at the MFA trace Cassatt's development from her early, more academic style into her Impressionistic experimentation. The second gallery, for example, contains several portraits of women and men in opera boxes. Unlike Edgar Degas's well-known behind-the-scenes pictures of ballerinas, Cassatt concentrates on the audience.

In her 1878-9 "Woman in a Loge" a young woman in her 20s sits in her theater box facing us, wearing an off-the-shoulder pink gown and holding her fan on her lap. Even here, Cassatt is already experimenting with color. Cassatt employs bright tones; a red flower on the woman's dress echoes the rich red of the velvet chair behind her. More striking, however, than Cassatt's choice of bright colors is her manner of achieving these tones. The blues and yellow of the theatre walls, reflected in a mirror behind the young woman, reappear as blue and yellow tones in the skin of the woman's chest and arms. Similarly, the pink dress, which appears at first glance to be a solid color, resolves itself into a conglomeration of yellows, blues, whites, and yes, some pink. Here Cassatt uses a common Impressionistic technique: she achieves a greater vibrancy of tone by juxtaposition of unblended opposing colors.


In another painting from 1878, the "Portrait of a Little Girl," Cassatt goes even further with her color experimentations. This rather large painting employs one of Cassatt's most typical subjects: a young child engaged in a natural activity--in this case, lounging informally on a comfortable blue chair. While the girl is clearly the subject of the painting, Cassatt forces her to the side, filling the canvas with four ponderous blue sofa-chairs. The outrageous multicolored upholstery patterns, painted in thick, indelicate slashes, dominate the surface of the painting and seem disconnected from the fabric of the sofas, almost as if floating above the chairs themselves. When it first appeared, this painting caused a small sensation; the source of the problem was not, however, the bold use of color. Rather, this painting elicited controversy because of the coy expression on the girl's face and her indiscreetly pushed-up dress.

Not to be missed at this exhibit is Cassatt's beautiful but lesser known series of drypoint and aquatint color prints from 1890-91. These prints, inspired by a similar series of woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Kitigawa Utamaro, depict daily domestic scenes of female life. Subdued colors and clean lines give these prints a charming simplicity. But the Museum of Fine Arts has not done the best possible job of showing the close links between Cassatt's style and the style of the original Japanese prints that inspired her. At the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Cassatt exhibit first opened, a Japanese woodblock print series showing corresponding domestic scenes was displayed on the wall across from Cassatt's own series. The MFA has displayed a small number of Japanese prints, but not in series and not even in the same room as Cassatt's prints.

Of course, the exhibit also contains a large number of Cassatt's signature portraits of young children, often painted together with their mother or nurse. Unlike so many other portraits of children, from the Renaissance through her own time, Cassatt's children actually look like children. Unlike previous painters, she does not paint children with adult facial expressions and proportion. Perhaps best among these paintings is the well-known "The Child's Bath" of 1893, which displays a nurse or mother tenderly holding a child on her lap as she begins to wash the little girl's feet. The girl calmly balances herself on the woman's knee and seems about to bite her lip as she watches the woman gently washing her foot. This oil painting, like Cassatt's prints, shows evidence of the Japanese influence; the lines are simple and the layout of the picture is flattened, with the floor behind the woman and child pushed up so that the room becomes depth-less, forcing the woman and child forward, while at the same time contributing to the calm feeling of the bath-time scene.

Whether or not we choose to label Mary Cassatt a "modern woman," we can certainly call her a skilled and innovative painter who produced a uniquely emotional oeuvre. Like other Impressionists, Cassatt strove to capture scenes of modern life. Yet while her male counterparts often focused on working people, cityscapes or natural panoramas, Cassatt turned her eye to the private lives of her subjects. Concentrating her view on women and children, she presented their daily activities with remarkable tenderness and grace.

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