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Intimacy in pastel: Mary Cassatt.

Looking Carefully

Drawing with pastels has played an important part in the history of European and European-American art. The creation of portraits done in pastels appear less formal than painted portraits. The use of pastel as a drawing medium allows many artists to work directly from a subject, without the preparatory sketches or photographs often used by portrait painters. Whether pastel drawings are quickly executed and sketchy in their appearance or more carefully refined, they often reveal a freshness and intimacy that is unusual in painting.

Mary Cassatt often chose pastels for her portrayals of women and children, the images for which she is most recognized today. Although many of these are pictures of particular individuals, frequently members of her family, she did nut think of herself as a portrait artist--her concerns were not limited to capturing a subject's likeness. She was also interested in the composition of a picture, and she used the arrangement of forms, along with her chosen subjects, to enhance the meanings of her images.

In her pastel drawing Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, Cassatt portrayed her subjects up-close and monumental against an abstracted landscape background. The corner of a house, barely revealed in the upper right corner of this drawing, suggests that this lush green setting is a domestic garden. This detail locates the scene within the private realm of the home, the environment in which Cassatt's subjects are most often portrayed.

Relationships between women and children have been depicted by many artists, and Cassatt was aware of such images in the history of art. Cassatt's aim was to depict the bond between real women and the children they cared for, rather than a sentimental, idealized image of motherhood. The focus of this drawing is the interaction between the nurse and the child, whose attention is jointly directed to the book held by the woman. The arrangement of the figures, the symmetry of the image and the location of the book at the center of the drawing, as well as the position of the hands and directed gaze of the woman and the child at the book rather than outward at the viewer, reinforce the attentiveness of these individuals to their shared activity.

Cassatt's drawing technique reinforces this focus. While their surroundings and the woman's garments appear rapidly drawn with long, almost sketchy diagonal strokes, the faces and the child's hand are modeled with smaller, more finely blended lines. Subtle color shifts convey the effect of light and shadow. Cassatt used both natural color and non-naturalistic complementary colors for warmth and for balance in this carefully composed image. Note the child's red hair against the blue-green of the woman's dress and the background, and the use of blue and green for shadows on the flesh of the woman and child.

Images of Modern Life

The only American member of the Impressionists, Cassatt studied in France, Italy and Spain, and exhibited in the Salon in Paris before being invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists. Cassatt used pastels in earlier works, but a display of Degas' pastels in a Paris gallery inspired her return to this medium. She often used pastels throughout the rest of her career.

Cassatt exhibited with the Impressionists from 1879 through 1886, but she and Degas, with whom she shared a lifelong friendship and working relationship, insisted upon referring to themselves as Independents. Rather than an artistic style, they shared with the Impressionists a rejection of the prevailing system of juried exhibitions that accepted only works conforming to the officially sanctioned aesthetics of the French art academy. They also shared a desire to paint scenes of modern life.

During the late nineteenth century in Paris, the aspects of life to which socially respectable women and men had access were quite distinct. For the male Impressionists, modern life included the public realm of work, leisure and entertainment. For upper-middle-class women such as Cassatt and Morisot, access to this public domain was limited by social convention. Although Cassatt herself never married and did not have children, she had much more access to the intimate interaction of women and children in the private domestic realm than her male contemporaries, even if they had children of their own.

Cassatt's paintings, pastels and etchings reveal the realities of modern life as experienced by women of her class. Her art reveals an understanding of the physical, mental and emotional intimacy shared between women, and by women and the children they cared for. Male artists of the time such as Degas, also portrayed women and occasionally women with children. The distant vantage point from which these subjects were portrayed and the formality of family groupings, reveal the distance of these male artists from domestic life.

Key Concepts

* Many artists have used pastels to create intimate portrait images which are more direct and less formal than many painted portraits.

* Mary Cassatt's images often show women and children physically interacting in ways that suggest their emotional interconnection. The way that she portrayed these relationships was more honest and less sentimental than many earlier images based on the same theme.

* Although Mary Cassatt's pastel drawings of women and children are naturalistic likenesses, they are also carefully composed images which reveal her concern with balance, form and color.

* Cassatt depicted the aspects of modern life that she had access to--life within the home or entertainment such as the opera or theater. Due to the social conditions of the time, she was able to do this with an insider's view that was inaccessible to her male colleagues.


Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 to an up per-middle-class Pittsburgh family. After an extended visit to Europe when she was young, her family settled in Philadelphia, where Cassatt received artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Painting was seen as an appropriate accomplishment for a young woman of Cassatt's social class, and she was encouraged by her parents in her early studies. Her determination to become a professional artist was much less acceptable, however. Her father is said to have told her, "I would rather see you dead." She convinced him to let her return to Europe in 1865, and she spent the next ten years studying with several Realist painters in France.

Cassatt's early work met with success. During the 1870's she had several works accepted into the Salon, the annual juried exhibition sponsored by the French academy. As she became familiar with the work of the impressionists, her painting became lighter and brighter, and met with less favor from the Salon jury. In 1877, Degas, impressed by one of her works at the Salon, invited her to show with the Impressionists. She exhibited with them until 1886, the year of their final exhibition. While this freed her to pursue new directions in her art, it also meant giving up the chance for official recognition and success, as the Impressionists insisted that their members not submit work to the Salon. For the rest of her life Cassatt refused to show in juried exhibitions and to accept awards for her paintings. She be- lieved that this system held the danger of destroying or overlooking promising young artists.

As was common for unmarried women of this time, her parents and sister came to live with her in France, and she supported and cared for them for over a decade. Family members became frequent subjects of her paintings and pastel drawings.

During the course of her career, Cassatt gained recognition in France, and more slowly, in the United States. She received numerous honors in both countries. In addition to receiving recognition for her own work, she was responsible for the beginnings of major collections of Impressionist paintings in the United States through her advice to American art patrons. She continued to paint and draw into the twentieth century, although failing eyesight due to diabetes forced her to stop working by 1915. She died in 1926.

Suggested Activities


* Show students examples of pastel drawings by Cassatt, Degas and other artists. Discuss ways that these artists define forms and blend and shade with color. Have students experiment with pastels and the various ways that the colors can be combined. Brown or gray paper will make lighter colors seem brighter. Ask students to notice the ways that colors affect each other, and the ways that warm and cool colors can be used to create light and shadow.

* Cassatt created numerous pastel drawings, paintings and etchings of women and children. These are well illustrated in books on Cassatt and other texts. Show students examples of Cassatt's work. What feelings are conveyed by these images? Discuss with students how these feelings are suggested through color, arrangement of forms, and pose, including the physical connection between the figures and the direction of their gaze. Have students make pictures using these compositional means to convey a feeling about a scene.

* Artists throughout the world have created images of children and the people who care for them. Have students research and compare some of these images. What do these images suggest about raising children in the culture that they come from? Students can create their own images of raising children, and discuss these in relation to the images they have found.


* Discuss the use of pastels for portraits and genre drawings by past artists, particularly in Europe. Compare these to similar images in other media. Ask students to look for the effects of various drawing techniques, from quick sketching to careful blending of colors. Ask them to consider what is unique about pastel as a medium and how it can be used to draw with color. Have students use various pastel techniques to create portraits. Many artists use medium-toned paper for pastels; drawing on gray or brown paper works well, as students can experiment with drawing highlighted as well as shaded areas.

* Show students examples of how late nineteenth century artists in Europe portrayed public and private life. Discuss the class and gender divisions of social realms experienced in this society. How are these divisions evident in their work? How and why are the places and activities portrayed by Cassatt distinct from those portrayed by her male contemporaries? What types of divisions are evident today? Ask students to think about the social realms accessible to them, and how their "insider's view" might look different from that of someone outside of their social group. Have students make drawings or sketches in a public or private space where they feel comfortable. How would an outsider portray these spaces differently?

* At different times in history, based on their own gender, class, race, ethnicity and the social conventions of the time, artists in Europe and the United States have had different degrees of access to art training and opportunities for exhibition. Have students research an artist whose work interests them, and discuss their findings with the class. How might this artist's works have been shaped by social access and limitations? Were these artists able to overcome any of these limits? If so, what made this possible, and what were the results?


Breeskin, Adelyn D. Mary Cassall: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors and Drawings. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Art and Society. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1990.

Craze, Sophia. Mary Cassatt. New York: Crescent Books (distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.), 1990.

Epstein, Vivian Sheldon. History of Women Artists for Children. Denver: VSE Publisher, 1987.

Mary Cassatt: Pastels and Color Prints. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978.

Meyer, Susan E. Mary Cassatt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.

Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1980.
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Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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