Intimacy in Pastel: Mary Cassatt

By Herzog, Melanie | School Arts, September 1991 | Go to article overview

Intimacy in Pastel: Mary Cassatt


Herzog, Melanie, School Arts


Looking Carefully

Drawing with pastels has played an important part in the history of European and European-American art. The creation of portraits done in pastels appear less formal than painted portraits. The use of pastel as a drawing medium allows many artists to work directly from a subject, without the preparatory sketches or photographs often used by portrait painters. Whether pastel drawings are quickly executed and sketchy in their appearance or more carefully refined, they often reveal a freshness and intimacy that is unusual in painting.

Mary Cassatt often chose pastels for her portrayals of women and children, the images for which she is most recognized today. Although many of these are pictures of particular individuals, frequently members of her family, she did nut think of herself as a portrait artist--her concerns were not limited to capturing a subject's likeness. She was also interested in the composition of a picture, and she used the arrangement of forms, along with her chosen subjects, to enhance the meanings of her images.

In her pastel drawing Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, Cassatt portrayed her subjects up-close and monumental against an abstracted landscape background. The corner of a house, barely revealed in the upper right corner of this drawing, suggests that this lush green setting is a domestic garden. This detail locates the scene within the private realm of the home, the environment in which Cassatt's subjects are most often portrayed.

Relationships between women and children have been depicted by many artists, and Cassatt was aware of such images in the history of art. Cassatt's aim was to depict the bond between real women and the children they cared for, rather than a sentimental, idealized image of motherhood. The focus of this drawing is the interaction between the nurse and the child, whose attention is jointly directed to the book held by the woman. The arrangement of the figures, the symmetry of the image and the location of the book at the center of the drawing, as well as the position of the hands and directed gaze of the woman and the child at the book rather than outward at the viewer, reinforce the attentiveness of these individuals to their shared activity.

Cassatt's drawing technique reinforces this focus. While their surroundings and the woman's garments appear rapidly drawn with long, almost sketchy diagonal strokes, the faces and the child's hand are modeled with smaller, more finely blended lines. Subtle color shifts convey the effect of light and shadow. Cassatt used both natural color and non-naturalistic complementary colors for warmth and for balance in this carefully composed image. Note the child's red hair against the blue-green of the woman's dress and the background, and the use of blue and green for shadows on the flesh of the woman and child.

Images of Modern Life

The only American member of the Impressionists, Cassatt studied in France, Italy and Spain, and exhibited in the Salon in Paris before being invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists. Cassatt used pastels in earlier works, but a display of Degas' pastels in a Paris gallery inspired her return to this medium. She often used pastels throughout the rest of her career.

Cassatt exhibited with the Impressionists from 1879 through 1886, but she and Degas, with whom she shared a lifelong friendship and working relationship, insisted upon referring to themselves as Independents. Rather than an artistic style, they shared with the Impressionists a rejection of the prevailing system of juried exhibitions that accepted only works conforming to the officially sanctioned aesthetics of the French art academy. They also shared a desire to paint scenes of modern life.

During the late nineteenth century in Paris, the aspects of life to which socially respectable women and men had access were quite distinct. For the male Impressionists, modern life included the public realm of work, leisure and entertainment. …

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