Mary Cassatt had some of the gifts of Renoir — the sensuality of flesh, the focus on youth — but not his daring. Style and empathy will only take you so far; at some point, content has to kick in.
There are four pieces by Cassatt in June’s segment of the Norton’s Masterpiece of the Month series. They date from 1890 to 1908 : “Woman Bathing,” “Sewing in the Conservatory,” “Mother Jeanne Nursing Her Baby,” and “Head of Sara in a Bonnett Looking Left.”
Between them, they sum up the case for and against Cassatt, the American artist who was born in Pittsburgh, went to Paris in 1874 and spent the rest of her career having a fair amount of success as the token American woman amongst the Impressionists.
To begin with the case for the prosecution, “Head of Sara…” is well executed, but it’s also something unusual for Cassatt — it’s sentimental. Worse, it’s conventional, the stuff of ten thousand disposable magazine covers.
Luckily, “Women Bathing,” a partial nude, is the artist at her best, maturely assimilating influences and turning them to her benefit.
Cassatt had seen Japanese prints at the Beaux Arts in 1890 and began experimenting with drypoint and aquatints. In “Women Bathing” she adopts the typical Japanese flattening of space, as well as an elusiveness that’s unusual for Cassatt, who was not a mysterious artist — her work is usually about precisely what it seems to be about. Her subjects tend to be front and center, but the woman bathing has her back to us, and there’s just a hint of breast in the composition.
“Sewing in the Conservatory” and “Mother Jeanne Nursing Her Baby” are both flatly descriptive titles for two paintings that return to the basically observational. The artist didn’t do much with light; she was more interested in form and capturing a moment.
Critics have long wondered whether Cassatt’s constraints were entirely a product of the society she found herself in, or whether they were partially self-imposed. She was certainly prepared to experiment stylistically, but she shied away from content that might be considered risky — most of her work involves women involved in conventional domestic duties. Vermeer had much the same bias, but his work has a novelistic density and great emotional ambivalence in comparison to Cassatt’s pastel drawings of pastel scenes.
You can interpret Cassatt as either a premature feminist who paid quiet tribute to her sisters, or a woman who accepted her parameters with something that occasionally verges on complacence.
One other thing: the Norton’s presentation of these works is exemplary. You can sit in quiet contemplation and let the paintings wash over you.
IF YOU GO
Mary Cassatt: Masterpieces of the Month, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach.