Friday, February 5, 2010

Mary Cassatt: More Than An Impressionist

Self Portrait by Mary Cassatt, 1880

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) has always been classified as among the French Impressionists rather than the American impressionists, with she and Berthe Morisot as the only two female painters within this school. Cassatt had showed her early paintings in the Paris Salon and after her later paintings were rejected, Edgar Degas invited her to show her work with the Impressionists and she did. I find though that her art is consistently different than most of the work of the other French Impressionists because of Cassatt's focus on the psychological moment and her perspicacity in painting children. In this she reminds far more of such Renaissance giants as Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1490-1576) and the great painter of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velasquez.

Born into a prominent and wealthy family near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mary began her education at the age of six in Philadelphia where her family had moved. At the age of 15 she began to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with a determination to become a professional artist. Although her family did not agree with Mary's commitment to becoming a professional, they nevertheless did everything to support it. Her mother went with her on European tours--an obligatory part of every wealthy young American's education at the time--but in Mary's case, this meant long stays in Spain where Mary studied and copied great works in the Prado, such as those of Velasquez, in Italy where she studied the great artists of the Renaissance, and to the Netherlands, where she studied the works of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. This immersion in great classical art shows in Mary Cassatt's paintings. For instance, compare

Infanta Margarita by Diego Velazquez, 1656

with Mary Cassatt's

Mary Cassatt in a White Coat, 1896

Mary Cassatt's sensitivity for children reminds me of this great Titian painting, Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, painted in 1542. This is one of my most favorite paintings because Titian was able to capture the most subtle nuances of this young man's human condition. At once he see that he is a young man, with all the innocence of youth, as seen by the softness of his expression, particularly in his eyes. Yet, he is clothed in the raiment of his position, a tunic hardened by pleats, a heavy overcoat trimmed with fur, bearing a cross, his hand on a sword. His expression encapsulates his future--as if he were gazing down the length of a road that is his known and inevitable future life.

I see the influence of Titian's painting in this painting by Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Marie Louise Durand Ruel, daughter of the premier art dealer of impressionist art. This young lady is not burdened with society's demands in the same way as Titian's young Farnese prince, but her facial expression has the same degree of subtlety. This is a thoughtful young lady. She is poised before her portraitist in perfect ease; she is herself, at this moment, but pregnant with her future as she looks not quite at her portraitist but a little to the side with calm confidence.

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