Cassatt’s Pioneering Inventiveness
Counterproofs by Mary Cassatt at Adelson Galleries; plus Balthus in a midtown window
It was Degas who first suggested to Mary Cassatt that she claim women and children as her subject matter. I can’t help wondering—ignobly—if there was some unconscious mischief in the suggestion. Subject matter has dogged her reputation since her death in 1926.
|Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder
The splendor of Cassatt’s command of form, her graphic mastery and pioneering inventiveness, together with her genius for summoning a human presence, could not quite be called great because they were exerted on women and children. Even the Women’s Art Movement, cruising for reputations to resuscitate, preferred the weaker Berthe Morisot. Enterprising and successful in her lifetime, Cassatt contradicted the script of passivity and victimhood that the movement’s founding document ( Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”) insisted was the condition of women in the arts.
Largely self-supporting, Cassatt contributed to her parents’ livelihood and, through friendship with Louisine Havemeyer, fostered the careers of fellow painters. (The Havemeyers’ Impressionist collection, bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum, was acquired with Cassatt’s guidance.) She was a passionate Dreyfusard and active supporter of women’s suffrage. As a woman and an artist, Cassatt set the bar high—too high for a movement seeking strength of numbers.
Authorities in American art, Adelson Galleries is exhibiting a newly discovered, previously unseen inventory of 48 counterproofs circa 1905-1915. Essentially monotypes, these are created by a damp sheet of paper laid over a chalk or pastel drawing and run through a press. Pigment lifts from the original, yielding a pale mirror image. Originally in the collection of Ambrose Vollard, Cassatt’s dealer, the counterproofs extend knowledge of her prints and of the range of her creative experimentation.
|Portrait of a Young Woman in Green
Because so little pigment is transferred, individual hatchings pale into veils of melded color. There is a Holbeinesque purity and economy to these images, testimony to what little means are needed to suggest weight and volume. “Portrait of a Young Woman in Green” builds on a simple complementary color scheme: the muted green of a woman’s dress against a subdued red background. The polarity throws into relief the ivory paper which serves, with the barest of inflection, as skin tone. A scant few marks lend dimension to the dress and warmth to the skin. It is a virtuoso performance, relying on heightened suggestiveness instead of delineation to evoke a very specific woman.
My favorite is “The Banjo Lesson,” recalling Utamaro’s prints of women playing the samisen. A young girl looks over the shoulder of her tutor, leaning affectionately against the woman’s back. Composed as a single unit, both are absorbed in the movement of the woman’s fingers across the frets. It is an icon of the gift of knowledge and the dignity of its transmission; music plays proxy for adult acculturation.
Observed from above,“Sketch of a Mother Holding Down Thomas” adopts a perspective that appealed to both Cassatt and Degas. Centered on the dark crown of a woman’s head bent over an unhappy child, the anti-classical composition prefigures contemporary snap shots. And squirming Thomas explains, indirectly, why Cassatt favored little girls past toddlerhood or babes in arms: they held their poses.Also on show in a small side room are prints (etching, drypoint and aquatint) from Cassatt’s landmark “Set of Ten,” a series inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. The supremacy of her line and distinguished tonal sense place these among the glories of 19th century graphic art. They must not be missed.
Ambiance at Adelson, occupying a duplex in The Mark Hotel, is ideally suited to collectors of antique objets d’art. You expect a tea cart to appear any minute, piled with old Spode and petite fours. The milieu tends to overwhelm the vitality and continuing relevance of Cassatt’s achievement. Resist atmospherics and concentrate on the hand revealed on paper. There is no turning back from there.
The most tantalizing exhibition in town is not an exhibition at all. It is a window display in a private reception area at the west end of the facade of theSolow building at 9 West 57th Street. On an interior wall facing the sidewalk are—be still, my heart!—six Balthus paintings!
Four are familiar, thanks to anonymous owners who have permitted reproduction. One is a variant of “The Courtyard of the Farm at Chassy” (1960), owned by the Pompidou Centre. Next to it, centering the display, is the luscious “Large Landscape” (1960) that exists in more than one incarnation. Balthus’ love of the Sienese is visible in tree trunks bending with cursive grace, outlined against delicate color harmonies and a blaze of autumnal siennas. A fully realized study for “The Three Sisters” (1954) is here; also, “The Mouron-Cassandre Family” (1935) with its odd trio: a grown daughter sits on her mother’s lap, both oblivious to an elfin boy perched on a tabletop reading a newspaper.
Two paintings are new to me. One is a portrait of a woman in blue, possibly from the 1930s. The other is an arresting, hieratic variation of the girl at her toilette, a theme that dominated his work in the 1940s.
My interest in the new near-billion dollar MoMA sagged on learning that the contemporized shrine had left its Balthuses in storage. I am fantasizing surely, but it pleases me to think that this declaration of private ownership is an intended rebuke to the curators four blocks south.
The security guard was unforthcoming about the display and nixed any hope of access to the room. So, New Yorkers, take what you can get. The paintings are 15 or so feet back from the window, close enough to recognize but too far to embrace. Press your nose to the glass and eat your heart out.
“Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt” at Adelson Galleries (The Mark Hotel, 25 East 77th Street, 212-439-6800).
This review was first published in The New York Sun [www.nysun.com] December 30, 2004.
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey