As a follow-on from my previous blog I want to feature some more works by Mary Cassatt which feature the close relationship between mother and child. Mary Cassatt had always been enthusiastic about painting mothers and their children and this passion was once more awakened when, in 1880, Cassatt’s brother, Alexander, arrived in Paris with his young family. Their arrival renewed Cassatt’s interest in depicting children, and her nephews and nieces now provided the opportunity for Cassatt to study and paint children from life. She would often use her brother’s family as models. She would also use local women as her models for her paintings rather than employ professional models as, first of all, she did not believe that professional models would agree to sit for her, but secondly and more importantly, she was of the opinion that professional models posed self-consciously and that would destroy her objective of producing a natural mother and child portrait. As in most of her paintings, Cassatt did not seek to glamorise or sentimentalise her subjects; instead she wanted to depict the mothers as honest, clean-living, good-looking women.
The first mother and child work by Mary Cassatt that I am featuring is one she completed in 1889, entitled Emmie and Her Child. We can clearly see the influence of Impressionism in this work. Before us, we see a young child sitting on his or her mother’s knee. Look how relaxed the young child is as he gazes out at something off-canvas. The child rests his right hand on the mother’s chin. It seems to be almost an unconscious gesture. It assures him of her presence. It is not a demanding or needy gesture. His left hand is placed on his mother’s hand which encircles his waist. He is at ease. He feels secure in the close presence of his mother. The mother looks down lovingly at her child. She wraps her arms around her child offering comfort. She too is relaxed, content and happy.
There is a pleasing tranquillity about the depiction of mother and child. This tranquillity is enhanced by the colours Cassatt has utilised in this work. There is a lot of white but it is not a glaring brilliant white as it has been toned down by the grey, blue and brown she has added to the white. The white of the mother’s dress has also been toned down by the incorporation of a floral pattern of red roses, the colour of which almost optically masks the white of the dress. Although the white of the mother’s dress and the tinged white of the jug and bowl on the shelf in the background are less than pure it is the colour of the child’s vest which retains the pure white colour and thus makes it stand out. This pure white colour also reflects the light upwards on to the child’s face which thus cleverly captures our attention.
My next featured work by Mary Cassatt is entitled Baby’s First Caress and was completed two years after my previous offering, in 1891. The first thing I noticed about this work was the similar way in which Cassatt has depicted the baby reaching up to touch and cup his mother’s chin with his tiny but pudgy hand. However, unlike the first painting, the baby boy is concentrating on his mother’s face. It is as if he is mesmerised by it and needs to feel the texture of his mother’s skin so as to glean some knowledge about her face. At the same time that he is touching her face she is holding his foot in her left hand, maybe soothingly stroking it with her thumb to give him some reassurance whilst her right arm which is out of sight cradles his back and keeps him secure on her knee. If we look closely, we can just make out the fingers of the mother’s right hand which the baby grasps in his right hand. She looks down at him with a loving expression. This work, unlike the first painting which was in oil, is in pastel. Once again the brilliant white of her dress has been toned down by strokes of blue as well as the hint of a red floral pattern. This has subdued the brightness of her dress and therefore does not distract us from the depiction of mother and child.
The provenance of this work is quite interesting. The painting had belonged to Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer. She was an art collector, fervent feminist and a patron of Impressionist art. After her father’s death in 1874, when she was eighteen years of age, her mother took Louisine and her sister to Paris. She attended the Marie Del Sarte’s boarding school where she became friends with a fellow student, also an American, Emily Sartain, and it was through this friendship that Louisine met Mary Cassatt. The two became inseparable and would often tour the Parisian art galleries and during one such visit Louisine met Degas. Cassatt convinced Louisine to invest in some of Degas’ works. It was good advice as in her autobiography Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a collector, Louisine wrote that one of the works by Degas which she bought was a pastel, La Repetition de Ballett, and it cost her 500 francs (about $ 100 US) which was almost her week’s stipend. In 1965 her grandson George Frelinghuysen sold it for $ 410,000! After that first foray into the world of a buyer of artworks, Louisine and Mary Cassatt made many more art purchases and the pair of art lovers travelled all over Europe together. Louisine was introduced to other aspiring artists such as Monet and Manet. Louisine returned to America in 1880 and concentrated on becoming an art collector. Three years later she married Henry O. Havemeyer of the American Sugar Refining Company. In the years that followed she and her husband built up one of the most important private art collections. When she died Louisine’s most of the art collection went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and yet this work, Baby’s First Caress, did not, as Louisine bequeathed it to her daughter Elektra, who was the wife of the great polo player and member of the Vanderbilt family, James Watson Webb. The painting was then bequeathed to the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, Connecticut where it is currently housed.
In 1895 Cassatt painted a portrait of Louisine and her daughter Electra.
Although based in her rue de Marignan apartment in Paris in the winter, with the occasional visit to Grasse in Provence if the winter weather was really bad, Mary Cassatt bought herself a summer residence in 1893. It was the Chateau Beaufresne which was situated fifty miles north-west of Paris in the commune of Mesnil-Théribus in the Oise department. She loved her summer home and stayed there 33 years up until 1926, the year she died. Of the country house she once said:
“…I have two loves, my country and Beaufresne !…”
My final offering is an oil painting by Mary Cassatt which she completed in 1902 and is entitled Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby. It was at Chateau Beaufresne that she completed this mother/daughter work. Reine Lefebvre was a local woman and neighbour and featured in a number of Cassatt’s works between 1902 and 1903 as well as being depicted in a number of preparatory sketches for this finished work. This oil painting of Reine and her baby was the culmination of many sittings and many preparatory sketches. We see the mother with her arms crossed together around the legs of the baby forming a platform for her to sit upon. She wears an orange robe and the simple flecks of white paint give it a polka-dot appearance. The addition of what looks like a red collar or scarf around Reine’s neck cleverly draws our eyes towards the faces of the mother and baby. The artist wants us to concentrate on the faces of her two characters. The lack of any objects in the plain dark background means that we focus purely on mother and baby.
Cassatt’s desire for realism extends to the depiction of the baby, which she has been portrayed as still having a fat stomach, which infants often have during the early days. The baby has wrapped her arms around Reine’s neck. They both focus on a point off-canvas. Reine’s eyes look tired. Once again Cassatt has avoided sentimentality in this work and the mother’s weary look is a true depiction of the tiredness that often goes hand in hand with a mother coping with a young baby. It would have been so simple to portray Reine as a person full of life with a loving smile for her baby but this portrayal of her is a realistic one and one that Cassatt believed was the way to depict a mother with her child. It is an honest portrayal and lacks sentimentality and hype.
In my two blogs featuring the mother/child portrayals by Cassatt I have constantly talked about her determination to avoid sentimentality which was often seen in works by other artists. The writer Joris-Karl Huysman was forthright in his condemnation of such artists who over-sentimentalised mother and child portrayals when he wrote about the way them. He wrote:
“…The bunch of English and French daubers have put them in such stupid and pretentious poses!…”
He went on to acknowledge the realism of Mary Cassatt’s work with its hint of Japonisme, writing:
“…[her works were]… irreproachable pearls