MARY STEVENSON CASSATT 1845-1926
Agatha and Her Child, 1891
Pastel on paper, 26 x 2 1 " (66.04 x 53.34 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 947-W-102
Mary Cassatt, the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists, owes her reputation to the honesty, sympathy, and directness with which she represented subjects from contemporary domestic life. Between 1875, when she saw some pastels by Edgar Degas in a Paris art dealer's window, and 1879, when she began to exhibit with the Impressionists, she developed a distinctive style that combined a light, bright palette with the strong contours and confident volumes of Degas. She applied this style to subjects that demonstrated her commitment to the "new realism" espoused by the Impressionist group.
Cassatt frequently chose as models her family and friends, whom she depicted at their frankly bourgeois pastimes. Although intended to be anonymous to her audience, her sitters possess startling specificity in their appearance and actions. Because they neither pose for nor acknowledge the viewer, they convey on paper or canvas something authentic and immediate.
Mothers with children are perhaps the subject most often linked with Cassatt. Although she rendered the theme throughout her career, her most intensive involvement with it took place between 1888 and 1894, when she made more than twenty mother-and child pictures in both oils and pastel, as if heeding Degas's advice to his sculptor-friend, Albert Bartholomu: "It is essential to do the same subject over and over again, ten times, a hundred times." Six of these pictures date from 1890-1891, including Agatha and Her Child. It was listed in Paul Durand Ruel's account books as having been purchased from the artist on June 1, 1891, and was probably made in Paris not long before that. In 1893, it was exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery in New York as part of a large display of her mothers and children.
Cassatt's pictures of mothers and children of the late 1880s and early 1890s were created at a time when she had begun to present her subjects as symbolic of universal ideas. Her mothers and children of this period shared certain formal characteristics; all half lengths with little or no background detail, they show at close range and in a quiet, controlled mood, a mother displaying one child in her arms. These features suggest that Cassatt's depictions may have
been attempts to create "modern madonnas," contemporary renditions on the timeless theme of new life and maternal love. Many of her fellow painters, including Eugene Carriere, George Hitchcock, Gari Melchers, and George deForest Brush, contributed to this genre, which reached a peak of popularity around 1890-1900. Unlike these other artists, Cassatt did not simply update the traditional madonna-and child formula but instead sought out gestures and psychological subtleties that ring true to life. In Agatha and Her Child, for example, a sense of visual honesty is well conveyed by the baby assertively pushing up from the mother's lap.
Despite the apparent spontaneity of these mother and-child images, Cassatt Planned the compositions meticulously and took pains in selecting her models, who, it has been pointed out, were not always mother and child. In Agatha and Her Child, she links the mother's and child's right arms to show them as complements of one another. Here, complementary hues dominate the palette; the auburn-haired mother wears a dark blue dress and the blue-eyed toddler a pinkish shift, while the flesh areas show unexpected passages of green and blue. At the perimeter of the picture, strokes of the pastel stick become bold and loose, paper shows through, and shapes become flat. However, Cassatt retains a convincing bulk for the figures by building up flesh areas with short, repeated strokes of her pastel sticks.
Cassatt's contemporaries recognized both the religious allusions of her mother- and- child pictures and her departure from their traditional expression. In an 1892 account of the Impressionist art owned by Paul Durand-Ruel, the author, after noting that Cassatt's mothers and children suggest a modern Holy Family, added: "It is no longer a matter of ecstatic virgins holding without affection, on rigid knees, a child aware of his destiny and who already goes on his way. These are infinitely human and loving mothers who squeeze against their bosom the rosy flesh of certainly lively babies who have no care except for their mother's caresses."