Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Massachusetts

 

Mary Stevenson Cassatt

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Offering the Panal to the Bullfighter, 1873

Oil on canvas, 39 5/8 x 33 1/2 in. Signed, dated, and inscribed lower right: Mary S. Cassatt./Seville./1873.

 

Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now part of Pittsburgh. Her taste for European life and art was cultivated from an early age; when she was seven her family went to Europe for a five-year stay. She received her formal art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia from 1861 to 1865. Following this, like many American artists after the Civil War, she went to Paris, where she studied with Jean-Leon Gerome. During the late 1860s, Cassatt traveled extensively in Europe. She returned to the United States in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War but went back to Europe in 1872 and after 1873 resided in or near Paris for the rest of her life.

Like many English-speaking people in the nineteenth century, Mary Cassatt was drawn to Spain. "I have been abandoning myself to despair and homesickness," she wrote to her friend Emily Sartain after postponing an 1871 trip, "for I really feel as if it was intended I should be a Spaniard and quite a mistake I was born in America." Cassatt finally made a trip to Spain in late 1872 and spent most of the five months in Seville. During this time, she painted four large canvases, including Offering the Panal to the Bullfighter, in which a bullfighter is given panal--Spanish for honeycomb or sponge sugar, dipped in water to provide energy and quench thirst.

The painting shows Cassatt's assimilation of various lessons learned in her student years in Philadelphia and Paris. Like her teacher Gerome, she sought new subjects and exotic models in Spain. Inspired by another French contemporary, Edouard Manet, Cassatt applied paint in a relatively heavy, free, and brushy manner. Her composition and palette, however, drew on her knowledge of Old Master painting, particularly canvases by the seventeenth-century Spaniard Diego Velazquez.

Cassatt first exhibited this painting in 1873 at the Paris Salon as Offrant le panal au torero. Its American debut was that same year at the Cincinnati Industrial Fair. It was shown the following year in New York with the English title. The painting seems to have been overlooked by the critics, perhaps because the composition is weak in some areas, such as the woman's foreshortened arm, or because Cassatt was young, unknown, and female.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Woman with Baby, c. 1902

Pastel on paper, 28 3/8 x 20 7/8 in. Unsigned

 

Mary Cassatt's favorite subjects were women with children, often depicted in pastel, as here. Never a mother herself, she managed to convey the nuances of feeling between mother and child, a theme she explored extensively from about 1888 to the end of her life. Although the implied relationship in Woman with Baby is that of mother and daughter, the models were not related. The woman has been identified as Cassatt's favorite model at this time, Reine LeFebvre, a local girl whom she employed as a cook.

The composition indicates a strong bond between the two figures even though they do not look at each other; with both hands the child embraces the woman, who, in turn, supports her with her upper arm, enfolding her in the orange kimono. Many similar scenes have suggested that Cassatt was inspired indirectly by the theme of the Madonna and Child.

Woman with Baby vibrates with brilliant colors--orange, blue, green, and red. Cassatt's skillful and bold use of pastels can be seen in the application and blending of these colors, particularly in the sensitivity and softness of the faces; the manipulation of the pinks, whites, and blues of the child's body; and the vigorous treatment of the kimono and the flat colors of the background. The kimono itself, the strong patterns, and the bold colors reflect Cassatt's admiration for Japanese art.

Mary Cassatt knew many of the impressionists and exhibited with them. She introduced their work to her wealthy American friends, especially Louisine and Horace Havemeyer. Because of Cassatt's wise advice, many important works by the impressionists are now in the United States.

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This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/8/11

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