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The Master of Painting Mother-Daughter Intimacy
On Mary Cassatt’s “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair”
Feb 26, 2019Featured artists
In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential. (See all installments.)
It is said success takes three ingredients: talent, luck, and perseverance. The great Impressionist Mary Cassatt’s life is no exception. She was born in the right era, that’s for sure; it’s hard to imagine her touch applied to Abstract Expressionism or Postmodernism, let alone the techniques of the Renaissance (not to mention that the period hardly allowed two successful women artists). Perseverance? She moved across continents to be where the art world was, and found her way into its folds. And as for talent, well, there’s no question of that.
Cassatt was born and raised in present day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of 15, in 1861, she moved to Philadelphia to attend the Academy of the Fine Arts, but dropped out in 1865, unimpressed by the curriculum and milieu. (Though there were other women in the program, few had the determination Cassatt had, and all had to overcome an inherent bias; female students weren’t even allowed to paint live models.) In 1866 she moved to Paris in the hopes of finding more fertile ground, and did. Though the École des Beaux-Arts was not yet accepting female artists, she found a mentor in Jean-Léon Gérôme, and began copying works at the Louvre. With the right sort of training under her belt, it wasn’t long before she’d shine in a big way. Two years after she arrived, her work was accepted into the prestigious Paris Salon—an immense feat for any artist, let alone a woman. She would be featured in exhibitions alongside the world’s greatest painters—Pissarro, Renoir, and Manet among them—and would also strike up a collaborative, (presumably) platonic relationship with Edgar Degas, which lasted until his death, in 1917.
Though her work cannot simply be boxed in by its gendered qualities, it was her feminine perspective that gave her work something rare. (Alongside Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond, she was one of les trois grandes dames—the three great women—of Impressionism.) Specifically, she is known for depicting mothers and daughters together, at their most intimate. It is for this reason that I chose to highlight Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). Though a parental figure may be absent, she is entirely present. How else could the child be posing as she is: self-aware but completely relaxed, at home, self-possessed? Her naturalness is even mirrored by the dog, who (one can assume) doesn’t know he’s being painted at all. Even the furniture in the room seems nonchalant, scattered about, each item neither parallel nor perpendicular to the others.
It is Cassatt’s talent that makes the scene (despite the antiquated styles of dress—those shoes!) seem like it is taking place today. But it is her essence, infused in the choreography, colors, and cohesion of the work, that makes it timeless.
— Andrew Lipstein, Head of Editorial