Here is where Modernism as we think of it was born. Here is where feelings, emotions and psychology began to win out over perspective and physically accurate depictions. One could comfortably bifurcate all of western art history at this point. Despite bursts of innovation along the way, it’s fundamentally an evolutionary process. And as such, one needs to be aware that while the break occurs here, it has its own flow and evolution that connects it to the past as well.
To some extent, this transition from old to new seems palpable in the works of Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). While the earliest well-known female artist, and firmly classified as an Impressionist, Cassatt and her shows today do not garner “blockbuster” status as do some of her male contemporaries shows. Some would have such notions as evidence of a long standing male bias in the art world; closer inspection would reveal it to be otherwise.
That is not in any way to say that Cassatt’s work is bad. In fact, Degas recognized the quality of her work in 1877 and invited her to show with the Impressionists. Two years later in 1879 she did so, and exhibited in four of the five remaining Impressionists shows in Paris. “Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family at the NWMA,” with nearly 50 Cassatt images, gives us an excellent overview of her work, and how her style changed with different media.
Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington D.C.). The exhibit runs through Jan. 25. Museum hours are Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, from noon – 5 p.m. (The museum will be closed on New Year’s Day.)
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors over 60 and students, and children under 18 are free. NOTE: Free Admission Community Day is the first Sunday of every month (i.e., this Sunday, Jan. 4). For further information, call 202-783-5000, or visit www.nwma.org.
As the title suggests, these are all portraits of one sort or another, essentially limited to the Cassatt family and her good friend Louisine Havemeyer (who collected art with Cassatt’s help, and donated nearly 2,00 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art upon her death in 1929) and her family.
With the exception of a few bathing images, these are all static, seated poses. Here is a significant and somewhat crippling link to the past in Cassatt’s oeuvre – the thrust of the newly sought out changing light and movement in general, with an increasing interest in a grittier rather than an idealized view of the world. Cassatt’s focus on “Mother and Child” as subject matter is safe, to say the least. Coupled with their static poses, the work relies on composition and stylistic working methods to generate movement, and thus lives or dies accordingly.
Working a balance between tight and loose styles, as she did, is a notoriously nasty animal to try and tame. Good work operates on a narrow ledge: too loose and you get sloppy; too tight and you get stiff, stilted work. It’s an easy thing to get wrong, and no one gets it right all the time – those who aren’t pushing themselves, anyway.
To modern day eyes, Cassatt’s quick sketches seem best of all. Often leaving much unsaid with significant drop-outs, and at times using aggressively asymmetrical compositions, the outcome has a surprising modern feel to it. While suffering from a lack of density to the drawing, “Sketch of Elsie’s Head” is the most engaging of all. We see the upper half of a child’s head peeking over what we imagine to be the shoulder of an adult. It’s the perfect psychological capture of a child’s diametrically opposed needs for safety, as well as exploration and discovery.
In fact, all of Cassatt’s work seems at its best when she peers into the mind of children. Her adults almost universally are caught in a day dream stupor with a “thousand yard stare.” While Hopper’s characters have the same look, their varying context gives them an edgy, angst-ridden feel. Cassatt’s adults just seem vapidly bored or exhausted. Either way, it’s not a particularly great artistic statement.
One gets the notion that the adults are mere props and a framework within which she portrayed children. It’s pure conjecture, but one has to wonder if Cassatt’s affinity for children came from an unmet desire for children of her own. Whatever the motivation, the pure genius of her work comes out when she captures the various psychological and or emotional states of childhood.
The best piece in this show is an oil painting titled “Ellen Mary Cassatt in a Big Blue Hat,” circa 1905. Here we see a young girl dressed in her best, presumably seated in a chair with hands resting in her lap. The focus of the painting is the tedious visage of a young girl under a hat big enough for a lady 30 or more years her senior. Cassatt has dropped out the areas to either side of her and toward the bottom of the canvas. These areas are superfluous to what Cassatt wants us to see, and as such, it leaves them in raw canvas or as thinly painted, which further focuses our attention on the girl’s face. Cassatt’s rapid, loose and vigorous brush work in these open areas also further emphasizes the feeling of motion, and by contrast, highlights the little girl’s forced stillness.
Consciously or not, Cassatt has also used a subliminal device in the way she rendered the chair arms bordering positive and negative space. They pinch inward hour-glass fashion at the girl’s shoulders. Obviously connoting an adult female torso, it emphasizes the adult role she is pressed to play, and the awkward discomfort that results.
Additionally, it serves to emphasize the girl’s physically small stature as she might only be shoulder high to her mother’s waist were they standing. It’s the perfect embodiment of a child whose youthful metabolism screams to run wild and free, yet is required by adult expectations and constraints to sit quietly and behave. Simply stated, it’s one of those works that seamlessly works on all levels. It’s just a beautifully evocative piece of work.
Examples of Cassatt’s drypoint prints with aquatint coloring bear witness to the influence of Japanese wood block prints and design in the wake of Japan’s opening to the outside world in the 1850s. Cassatt was far from alone in this fascination, though her colored prints, for better or worse, seem almost imitative. Many of Cassatt’s pastel works are also in this show. To my eye, they are the most susceptible to stiff overworking, and as such, are not, generally speaking, the best works on view here.
As with last week, this show provides another excellent opportunity to compare and contrast Photography with artist renderings. “Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography” is right next door. Compare Cassatt’s mother’s bathing children with Angela Strassheim’s role reversal photo. Likewise, you can compare Cassatt’s full frontal childhood nudity in mother’s arms with some of Sally Mann’s photos of her children that had her defending herself against charges of kiddie porn. Again, we see the power and weakness of photography. There is no clear victor in this battle.
The Northern Virginia Art Beat is compiled by Kevin Mellema. See www.fcnp.com for photos and more. To e-mail submissions, send them to [email protected]