Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mary Cassatt’s women work at motherhood in new art exhibition

- By Deborah Solomon

In the epic story of modern art, Mary Cassatt has been cast as the premier painter of mothers and babies. Yet she created a world in which no one ever changed a diaper or ran out of milk.

Her paintings are set amid the privileged spaces of 19th-century parlors and gardens, where women sew or read or nurse an infant, uninterrup­ted by men. They typically wear bonnets and ankle-length dresses, bows and ruffles, and do not glance at us. Rather, they avert their eyes, consumed by their own thoughts.

Cassatt was born into enormous wealth on Pittsburgh’s North Side (then known as Allegheny City) and spent most of her life expatriate­d to France. Her work fell out of fashion after her death, in 1926, at age 82.

She was dismissed as a paintbrush-wielding patrician unconnecte­d to the make-it-new spirit of modern art until at least 1998, when British feminist Griselda Pollock published the book “Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women” (Thames & Hudson, $21.95). The artist has been rehabilita­ted as a proto- feminist who supported women’s suffrage and experiment­ed daringly in her work.

The approachin­g centennial of Cassatt’s death is inspiring a new round of exhibition­s and books, and a reappraisa­l is welcome.

“Mary Cassatt at Work,” the first major exhibition of her art in a generation, opened May 18 at the Philadelph­ia Museum of Art (and will travel in the fall to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). The show attempts to rebrand her as, of all things, a friend of labor.

Its theme — work with a capital W — is two-pronged, seeking to establish Cassatt as an exemplary profession­al and to “challenge the idea that her oeuvre focuses solely on moments of leisure,” as curators Jennifer A. Thompson and Laurel Garber write in the accompanyi­ng catalog. They contend that the women in Cassatt’s paintings could only be accused of idleness by people who are ignorant about the wearying demands of child care and housekeepi­ng.

Who was Mary Cassatt? She stood 5-foot-6, with cool gray eyes and a confident, sometimes caustic manner. Born in 1844, she left home soon after the Civil War and settled in Paris. Rejecting the ways of women of her class (her brother Alexander became the president of the Pennsylvan­ia Railroad), she never married or had children.

Instead, she worked tirelessly at her art and found her way to the center of the French avant-garde. As the story goes, one day she admired a few radiant pastels of ballet dancers in a store window in Paris. Their creator, Edgar Degas, soon became a close friend and a foundation­al influence. He encouraged her to take up printmakin­g and, more generally, to jettison the stable, centered views of the past in favor of sharply angled perspectiv­es — the radical cut or crop.

He also invited her to exhibit alongside his fellow French im-Private pressionis­ts; she was the only

American to do so. For years, scholars hinted at a possible romance between Degas and his American disciple, who was a decade younger. But more recent research has focused on Cassatt’s relationsh­ips with women, including American collector Louisine Havemeyer and Mathilde Valet, her longtime maid and companion.

Cassatt’s will of 1911 bequeathed Valet a chunk of cash and a painting of her choosing. In a revised will that unsettled her relatives, Cassatt bequeathed Valet all of the artwork in her possession — some 300 paintings, drawings, pastels and prints.

Cassatt had a second career as an art adviser. She worked closely with Havemeyer, who lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City chock- a- block with masterwork­s, many of which wound up in the Metropolit­an Museum of Art.

In her forthcomin­g book on Cassatt — “Mary Cassatt between Paris and New York” (University of California Press, January 2025) — art historian Ruth E. Iskin stresses that Cassatt’s collecting activities were “a patriotic act” driven by her desire to enrich American museums and end this country’s reputation as an art wasteland.

As to the nature of Cassatt’s intimate relations, nothing is known. Letters, diaries, account books and calling cards were destroyed before or upon her death. For decades she lived and worked in the remote French countrysid­e, at Beaufresne, a stone château with long rows of shuttered windows.

The Philadelph­ia exhibition will open with a teasing comment of hers, from 1909, written large on a wall: “What one would like to leave behind one is superior art & a hidden personalit­y.”

Judged in terms of inventiven­ess, Cassatt cannot be said to inhabit the same exalted plane as Degas or Édouard Manet. She belongs to the second tier of impression­ists. Nonetheles­s, she is one of America’s greats.

Although her paintings of mothers cooing at their babies might seem as unrehearse­d as a snapshot, Cassatt stage-directed most of her scenes, hiring models and often pairing them with neighborho­od babies of no relation. She was, in other words, creating fictions of contented domesticit­y, and tended to favor, among her models, stocky women and chubby babies.

Consider the smallish but potent “Maternal Caress” (1896). A mother in a mint green dress, her hair in a bun, is seen from the back gazing at her spirited little girl, an inquisitiv­e child with gray eyes and lustrous waves of red hair, her face flushed from outside.

Note the eloquent articulati­on of the girl’s plump fingers as they press into the flesh of her mother’s malleable-as-clay face. Is the girl trying to silence her mother, as some writers have contended, or is she instead reveling in their physical connection?

Yes, of course, motherhood is work, lots of it. On the other hand, it’s hard to accept the premise that Cassatt’s paintings take as their subject the aches and infeliciti­es of unpaid labor. Cassatt remained securely seated in the upper-class milieu from which she sprang. The idea of her as a champion of work seems especially strained when one recalls such genuine impression­ist odes to labor as Degas’ bone-weary laundresse­s ironing sheets.

In trying to make sense of Cassatt’s work, it helps to know that her childhood was shadowed by illness and death. In 1851, when she was 7, her family sailed to Europe seeking medical help for an older brother, Robbie, who was suffering from a wasting disease believed to be bone cancer. After four years abroad and countless failed treatments, Robbie died in Germany, and the grieving Cassatt family promptly returned to the United States.

His death came two days after Mary’s 11th birthday and represente­d an incalculab­le heartbreak for her. Of her five siblings, “Robbie was the closest to her in age and was her steady companion during the many moves of her childhood,” art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews wrote in her pioneering 1994 biography of her artist. (Mathews is now writing an essay on Cassatt’s friendship with Berthe Morisot, the subject of an exhibition next year at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstow­n, N.Y.)

One might speculate that Cassatt, who witnessed so much sickness as a child, was spurred by feelings of loss to create a world in which mothers and children are forever infused with the glow of good health. Cassatt preferred close- ups, and her main subject was the luminosity of flesh, rendered with a realist’s fanatic attention to skin tones and textures.

 ?? Collection ?? “Mathilde Holding A Baby Who Reaches Out To The Right” by Mary Cassatt depicts the artist’s longtime maid, Mathilde Valet.
Collection “Mathilde Holding A Baby Who Reaches Out To The Right” by Mary Cassatt depicts the artist’s longtime maid, Mathilde Valet.
 ?? Carnegie Museum of Art ?? "Young Women Picking Fruit," an 1897 oil painting by Mary Cassatt, is in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Carnegie Museum of Art "Young Women Picking Fruit," an 1897 oil painting by Mary Cassatt, is in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

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