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Art Matters LXXI: Reflections on various art media, why use pastel, part 24 – Wicked Local

Mary Cassatt-Pastels 1890’s
A while ago we began an exploration of two-dimensional art media and have been focusing on the lesser-known medium of pastel.  Currently, we’re taking a look at a second famous woman pastelist-Mary Cassatt (Rosalba Carriera of Venice who was already discussed at length was first.)  Pastels’ origins lead back to northern Italy during the Renaissance including works by Da Vinci continuing on into the Rococo Era, after which the use of pastels faded until its rediscovery by Degas and Whistler, two important Impressionists, along with today’s artist-Mary Cassatt.
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 to 1926) was born in Alleghany City, Pennsylvania (which is now part of Pittsburgh) and lived most of her adult life in France where she became one of the leading women members of the Impressionist movement and a close friend of Edgar Degas.  To date we’ve covered Cassatt’s life through her first successes as an independent American woman artist living in Europe in the 1870’s through her growing frustration with the Paris Salon’s politics into the early 1880’s when Cassatt joined the Impressionist Movement following an invitation by Degas to join their 1878 exhibition and at that time, they worked together intensely on a Journal project which never was completed, although they were to remain friends for life.  By the 1890’s, Cassatt had become a powerful artist on the strength of her own highly developed skills including her experiments with print making which was highly influenced by a show of Japanese masters, and by 1894, Cassatt had purchased Chateau Beaufresne where she and her family summered for the remainder of her life.
While Cassatt is perhaps best known for her portraits and figure art that focused on women-generally those of her privileged background-depicting their daily lives with their young children, taking tea, reading, she was also one of the most inventive artists of the Impressionist movement and beyond.  Cassatt worked in multiple media, not least of which was pastel, rediscovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  Our exploration of Cassatt began from a look at pastel artists, but Mary Cassatt, as one of a very few celebrated women artists, merits a thorough review of her portfolio and her life.  Cassatt’s early years of artistic exploration in the 1870’s was also a time when pastel experienced a rebirth after almost a century of being dismissed as a medium best suited for small color studies and personal use.  This rediscovery of the merits of pastels began with the Independents, who revolted against the Academy in the 1860’s, followed by the more formally organized Impressionists who Cassatt had joined in 1877 with the encouragement of her mentor and life-long friend, Edgar Degas.  Plus, Cassatt had already been intrigued by pastels from the time when she had seen Degas’ pastel works on display in a gallery window.
Pastels were the perfect medium for Cassatt, as the medium appealed to her modernist (as opposed to classic) style with pastel’s ability for speedy execution.  The vast array of ready-made pastel color sticks meant Cassatt could create rich layers of color and bold contrasts as well.  The fact that a draftsman-style was readily possible, and that pastel also allowed for a broad painterly handling were additional positives.  As a dry medium, pastel allowed  Impressionists the immediacy of expression that characterized the movement’s signature intent; plus, the texture of pastels reflects light in a manner that was suited to the Impressionists’ fascination with depicting natural light.  The unvarnished matte surface of these works also implied a truthfulness or directness that was in opposition to the fiercely rigid academic establishment style.
Cassatt rejected the idea that pastels were only suitable for studies and began to offer them as finished works, suitable for inclusion in her exhibitions.
Not only was Cassatt’s conception of how to handle pastel unique, but she was good at it.  In this series of work from the 1890’s, Cassatt’s handling of pastels has matured.  Close examination of the children’s skin in either “Nurse Reading to a Little Girl” or “Pink Sash,” reveals hundreds of flecks of electric blue, especially in the children’s faces.  From a distance these tones are barely visible in the work, but just as in real life, those blue tones which naturally underlie our skin are present in her work.  Those same tones also bounce around in the background’s greens, one of the garments of the children and of the reader.  Plus, both works have a range of smooth, finely defined finish areas (again especially in the skin tones as well as faces and hair) and bold rougher sections which are more draftsmanlike in quality.  Cassatt’s technique allows the viewer to see the structure on which Cassatt has built her images.  And her colors are glorious-seafoam, gold, and cotton-candy pink, teal, tea-green, and ochre.  And within each of these blocks of color lie more colors!
Cassatt early on in the 1870’s when she was first breaking free from the Academy’s rigidity, devoted much time to portraying family members- who are so much easier to catch as they’re around.  One of her first entries in the Impressionist Exhibitions was a portrait of Madame Cassatt reading a newspaper.  Two exquisite pastels portraits from the 1890’s are pairings of sisters and a mother and older daughter.  “Madame Gaillard and her Daughter Marie Therese” have rich dark colored garments, the tones of which are reflected in Marie’s darker hair while the red of Madame’s flame red hair reflects in her cheeks, chin and ear with a seat back pulling the color into the background plus note how the white lines and shadows in their garments are seen in their skins.  Similar harmonies of color movement appear in the work “Two Sisters.”  The sisters are reminiscent of the handling of some of her earlier oils, especially “Lydia with a Pearl Necklace in the Loge” and makes one wonder whether these two sisters are she and her sister Lydia.
More on pastels and the final years of Cassatt’s painting career which focused heavily on Mother and Child studies to come — works which are well-known and well-loved.
Janet Cornacchio is an artist member of Front Street Art Gallery, President of Scituate Arts Association and a realtor. You can contact her at [email protected]

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