Mary Cassatt : An American Impressionist in Paris – Exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André

Mary Cassatt, who has been described as one of ‘Les Trois Grandes Dames” of impressionism, has the distinction of being the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris.  She was born in Pennsylvania in 1844 to a well off family but it was during an extended trip to Europe, including Paris, while still a child that she the-mandolin-player.jpg!Largediscovered art. Having decided to become a professional artist, she attended Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but disappointed with the attitude and training here, she moved to Paris in 1866 to continue her studies, despite opposition from her parents As woman were still banned from attending the prestigious École des Beaux Arts, she studied privately with some of the leading artists of the day. Her first success with the Paris Salon was in 1868 when, A Mandoline Player, a painting executed in an academic style and on loan to the exhibition from a Private Collection, was accepted for exhibition by the jury.  However, she eventually became disilliusioned with the Salon and the academic art they preferred and in 1875, when she first saw the work of Edgar Degas, she is quoted as saying ‘ It  changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it”. Mary_Cassatt_-_Little_Girl_in_a_Blue_Armchair_-_NGA_1983.1.18So in 1877 when she was invited by Degas to exhibit at the Impressionist exhibition, she jumped at the chance. One of her masterpieces from this period is Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art Washington, a compelling piece of work which stood out in the first room of the exhibition. The blue of the four easy chairs which take up a large portion of the canvas is striking and captivating. The little girl is shown flopped on one of the chairs while a little dog sleeps on the one next to her, all depicting a cosy domestic interior. It has now come to light, following infrared photography, that Degas contributed to the painting.

 

Edgar_Degas_-_Mary_Cassatt_-_Google_Art_ProjectDegas and Cassatt developed a close friendship and they could often be seen at the Louvre studying art together. They had a lot in common, both being from affluent backgrounds, well educated, both interested in figurative painting and both remaining unmarried.  They had studios near each other and they advised and encouraged each other.  Degas painted Cassatt’s portrait (left)  in 1877, now in the National Gallery, Washington, and Mary_Stevenson_Cassatt_-_Mary_Cassatt_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Projectalthough she hung it in her studio she found the painting ‘repugnant’. Degas paints her leaning over looking at the cards she holds in her hands and this painting contrasts sharply with the pose she adopts for her own self portrait, (which were rare),  which she painted around the same time and in which she appears to wear the same outfit. In her self portrait (right) from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, which is sketchily executed, she sits upright and presents herself as a professional artist and elegantly dressed woman.
the-cup-of-tea-1879.jpg!HalfHDMary Cassatt came from a francophile family, her father being descended from a French Huguenot family who settled in America in 1642  and her mother spoke fluent French. So it was no surprise then that, three years after Mary settled in Paris, her parents together with her sister Lydia moved to join her in 1877. Mary was very close to her sister Lydia and she became the subject of many of her paintings.  The Cup of Tea, c 1880/1881, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, depicts Lydia dressed in fashionable clothes celebrating both sisters love of fashion. In the painting, Lydia wears a stunning pink dress whose magnificent white ruff matches the cuffs of her dress and long gloves.  Here Lydia is taking part in the very fashionable social ritual of tea drinking and she is depicted elegantly holding a cup. Unfortunately, Lydia suffered from a kidney disease and died prematurely in 1882 aged 45 leaving Mary deeply affected.

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The exhibit also displays a portrait, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of her older brother, Alexander J. Cassat with his son Robert, which was executed whilst on a trip to Paris in 1884. Cassat shows the sitters with serious expressions and dressed in black but she softens the view by depicting her nephew sitting casually on the arm of his fathers chair with his arm around his neck. Alexander was a very successful business man becoming president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and on his death was one of the richest man in America. He was proud of his sisters success and due to her influence he became a collector of impressionist work.

 

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By 1894 Cassatt had bought Chateau de Beaufresne, a cottage about 50 miles north west of Paris where she was visited by many of her artist friends and where she would remain until her death in 1926. There was a small pond on the grounds and it is probably this pond that features in the painting Summertime, 1894, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicagowhich shows a woman and young girl on a boat in the lake. Equal importance is given both to the figures and the landscape, unusual for Cassat who liked to concentrate on her figures. Cassatt uses red, orange, blue and green brushstrokes to create a rippling effect on the water and the result is stunning. The two figures on the boat gaze at the duck passing by and the whole scene evokes the image of a leisurely peaceful summer’s day.

 

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Mary Cassatt’s became famous for her figure paintings, particularly of woman in domestic scenes and especially mothers with their children. The last room of the exhibition displays several works with this signature theme of ‘Mother and Child’ which Cassatt is so identified with and which can be seen as modern versions of the Virgin Mary and Child. Seated Woman with a Child in Her Arms, c 1890, Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, is extremely tender in its depiction of a boy in his mothers arms as he rests his head on his arm which in turn rests on her shoulder. The mother, who is seated at a table with a pitcher and washbasin, has her back is to us and she seems preoccupied with some task. The tenderness of the scene is accentuated by the beautiful tones of pink and blue used by Cassatt.

Mary-Cassatt-Mother-and-Child-also-known-as-The-Oval-Mirror-

This last room also displays Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror),c 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which was purchased by the Havemeyers, and who referred to it as ‘The Florentine Madonna”. The reference to the Virgin Mary and Child is clear from the the contrapposto stance of the young boy and in the oval mirror behind him which acts as a halo.

The exhibition is a great tribute to Mary Cassatt and as well as the works referred to above, it also highlights her interest in the creative process and the experimental nature of her work. It shows her as a modern independent woman who advocated equal rights for women and she was a revelation to me.

 

 

 

Exhibition : Corot and his Models at the Musée Marmottan Monet

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Interrupted Reading”, Art Institute of Chicago

It is fascinating to think, that at age 74, Camille Corot (1796-1875), renowned for his landscape paintings, created ‘Interrupted Reading’ left, a masterpiece of figure painting. Corot was single minded about painting, declaring as a young man that ‘I have only one goal…in life : to make landscapes. This firm resolution keeps me from a serious attachment…. marriage..’. Indeed, Corot remained true to his word – he never married and he went on to specialise in landscapes, the real hallmark of his career. Yet, as he grew older, he produced more and more figure paintings which he almost never exhibited but many of which were found in his studio on his death. It is this aspect of his work that the exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet explores and demonstrates, how in the last years of his career, Corot’s figures gained ‘in freedom and ambition’.

Of course, he did produce figure paintings early on in his career but these were mainly small portraits for an intimate circle of family and friends and not for exhibition. He also undertook figure painting on his various educational trips to Italy but again these were more as models to be used in his landscape paintings. In fact, whilst in Italy in 1843, he painted ‘Marietta’, below, a nude painting which he was very proud of and kept hanging Jean-Baptiste_Camille_Corot_-_Marietta

in his studio. In the mid 1850s, when the artist was in his sixties, he went on to create several more nudes in an effort to show that he was capable of painting more than just landscapes. One such painting, ‘Repose’, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington was exhibited by Corot at the Salon of 1861. It depicts a nude woman lying on the grass with her head turned towards the viewer. Although there is a classical feel to the setting, like ‘Marietta’, the model herself is painted in a realist manner giving the painting a more modern feel.repose-1860

Starting in the mid to late 1850s, Corot started to paint several series of figure paintings such as women at fountains, women in Greek or Italian dress, women reading and even a series of monks, a rare inclusion of the male figure in his figure paintings.

Above left, is an example from Corot’s series of woman depicted in greek costumes and is entitled ‘Greek Girl’, 1870, and on loan from the The Shelburne Museum, Vermont. It is a tender portrayal of a young girl whose pale costume is enlivened by a red belt and a red headscarf which hangs down her back. Her dark eyes are hypnotic and like so many of Corot’s figure paintings, she appears melancholic. Another popular subject matter for Corot were women reading, an example of which is shown above right, ‘Woman reading in the Countryside’, 1869-1870  which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum New York. This was one of the few figure paintings that Corot exhibited at the Salon and here Corot combines figure painting with landscape painting. Although this is a small painting the figure has a monumental feel to it.

Corot started sketching monks as far back as his first visit to Italy in 1824-1826 and it was a theme he continued right throughout his life. Corot did not usually include men in his figure paintings so his series of monk paintings together with his men in armour series, are an exception in his oeuvre. The monk is usually depicted as a solitary figure often reading or as in the painting above left, playing the cello. This painting, on loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, was Corot’s last painting. The painting on the right, ‘Sitting Monk Reading’1850-1855, Louvre, shows a monk totally absorbed in his reading and the painting is executed in a mixture of silvery whites and greys. Corot’s monks appear detached from the world and it has been suggested that they represent the solitary road Corot chose when he resolved to stay single for the sake of his art.

Camille_Corot_-_Woman_with_a_PearlLeonardo da Vinci was Corot’s favourite painter and it is 600px-Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouchedclear to see that Corot’s “Woman with a Pearl’ 1868-70, Louvre, is his take on the Mona Lisa. Corot’s model takes up the same three quarter profile as the Mona Lisa with her hands crossed and resting on her lap. Corot does leave the background blank unlike the Mona Lisa who is set against a landscape.

l-Lady-in-BlueThe exhibition ends with what it describes as Corot’s supreme masterpiece ‘Lady in  Blue’, 1874 and on loan from the Louvre. It shows a lady dressed in a magnificent blue dress leaning on a luxurious cushion whose pose allows us to admire the back of her dress with its fashionable bustle. This was Corot’s final figure painting and was, like most of his figure paintings, never exhibited during his life. It was finally presented to the public at the 1900 Universelle Exhibition, 25 years after Corot’s death where it caused a sensation. It is true that Corot didn’t give as much importance, certainly in his younger years, to figure paintings but despite this his output of figure painting is now considered to be the most modern of his oeuvre. The exhibition brings together about 60 of these works and is a great opportunity to see the more private side of Corot and his remarkable figure paintings.