Sargent, Whistler, and Mary Cassatt

Sargent, Whistler, and Mary Cassatt

Sargent, Whistler, and Mary Cassatt

Sargent, Whistler, and Mary Cassatt

Excerpt

Sargent, Whistler and Mary Cassatt shared a common fate in being Americans abroad. They, like numerous others of their countrymen, were numbered among the expatriates, yet their residence in Europe was not due to any wish to deny their American heritage but was virtually forced upon them since adequate art schools in which to study, firstrate galleries of paintings and indeed dependable patronage were not to be found in mid-nineteenth century America. Once established abroad, they were, to be sure, quite content to stay.

Whistler and Sargent both became such fixtures in England that they are classed as British School in museum catalogues of Great Britain. Mary Cassatt is invariably included in the French Impressionist group though never actually called French. Her intense patriotism for America and her pride in her own patrician Pennsylvania ancestry never permitted anyone to believe for a moment that she was anything but American. Sargent, though born abroad, never forgot his equally aristocratic Philadelphia and Boston lineage which marked him unequivocably as American. While Whistler liked to deny Lowell, Massachusetts, as his place of birth and suggested instead St. Petersburg, where indeed his engineer father once took the family to live, he was sufficiently fond of the military exploits of his paternal forebears and the tinge of privileged ease suggested by his mother's southern origin to boast a little of his American background. Furthermore, he never forgot that he had once been a West Point cadet.

These three artists all knew each other, yet they were never close friends due to the great divergence of their personalities, attitudes and mode of life. Mary Cassatt once refused to receive Sargent when he called because he had done, as she said, such a "dreadful portrait" of her brother Alex. Sargent's excessive conventionality made him inimicable to the patently unconventional Whistler, while Whistler's pre-marital escapades were distasteful to the almost prudish Miss Cassatt who nevertheless gave financial aid to Maud, Whistler's discarded mistress, when she was in need.

All three were nineteenth century artists in that they partook of the new trends of the second half of that great century of innovations. Impressionism to one degree or another touched them all. Whistler and Mary Cassatt were both avid devotees of the new taste for the Japanese. Sargent with his scintillating bravura which derived not a little from Manet surrounded his sitters with material elegance and endowed each with the soul of a patrician. Mary Cassatt, on the other hand, cared little for important personages, was interested essentially in line, pattern and color and treated her sitters so impersonally that few outside of members of her own family are even identified. Whistler created a sensitive and tender sort of impressionism of his own where line and form were of no concern, oil was applied as thin as water color and the whole effect was a matter of mood brought about through subtle gradations of tone and a kind of revelation of the inner spirit of the place or person represented.

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