Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge

Linda Nochlin

  • Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman edited by Judith Barter
    Abrams, 376 pp, £40.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 8109 4089 2
  • Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women by Griselda Pollock
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £7.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 500 20317 2

Mary Cassatt’s Lady at the Tea Table (1883-85) establishes her as one of the outstanding American painters of the 19th century. Indeed, it is one of the most remarkable portraits, American or not, of its time. A subtle combination of strength and fragility, the painting shows Mrs Riddle, Cassatt’s first cousin once removed. The sitter rejected it, apparently feeling that it did not do justice to her reputation as a great beauty. Certainly, it is not a flattering portrait, of the kind that John Singer Sargent was producing for a satisfied clientèle. If we compare it to a slightly later Sargent portrait – Lady Agnew, for example – we find the pose of Cassatt’s subject far more rigid, the costume and decor more severe; the tell-tale signs of age, especially about the mouth and chin, are carefully observed, if not exaggerated; the wonderfully quirky nose’s sharp tip is enhanced by a visible dab of white pigment; the horizontal flare of the nostril is anything but classic. What Mrs Riddle has is character, something as different from the vapid elegance of Sargent’s sitter as it is from the primitive energy of another almost contemporary portrait of a female sitter, Van Gogh’s La Mère Roulin.

The taking of tea in elegant surroundings forms the background in several of Cassatt’s paintings. Although she was unswerving in her professionalism and in her commitment to the work it entailed, she consistently honoured the domestic and the more conventionally feminine in her painting. Perhaps presiding over the tea-table seemed paradigmatic to her of that other kind of ‘work’, or more accurately, art, which women of the leisured class engaged in: the art of organising domestic ceremonies. In the portrait of Mrs Riddle, tea is represented as a ritual occasion, as part of a feminine rite. It may be that she saw her sitter’s vocation – building a seemly or even an exquisite atmosphere, manipulating the tea things, pouring, arranging her clothing and decor with a sure grasp and a keen aesthetic sense – as an analogue to her own work in painting a portrait: a task that is constructive, subtle, full of choices and decisions, a formal work as well as a social occasion.

Indeed, it is through the sensitive manipulation of the formal means of her own art that Cassatt has transformed what might have been a flattering likeness of Mrs Riddle into a masterpiece. Like Poussin’s great self-portrait in the Louvre, it is a painting about art and the making of art. Like Poussin, Cassatt places her sitter’s head in a series of framings which both hold it in place and call attention to the relation between the rectangles within the painting (one of which is itself a framed picture) and the rectangular shape of the canvas on which it is painted. Having constructed this tightly knit planar grid, she softens or conceals it by a strategic deployment of colour and texture, playing the blue and white patterns of the Chinese Export tea-set against the quite different blue and white whorls of the sitter’s transparent lace coif. And the glitter of the porcelain is picked up in yet another modality by the glowing striations of light playing on the sitter’s face.

I have gone into such detail about the construction of this one work to put paid, once and for all, to the notion that Cassatt is nothing but a purveyor of sentimental, secularised Madonna and Child images for the mass market. Although, later in life, she specialised in mothers and children, as Griselda Pollock points out, the images are usually freshly observed and modern in their psychological understanding of the relationship, as well as advanced in their formal language. One of her most interesting representations is of her own mother, a mother for once without a child. This Portrait of a Lady of 1878 shares a certain formal identity with Whistler’s all too famous Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871) in terms of pose and colour, but Cassatt’s mother is shown not staring blankly into space, an object within a world of objects, but rather in solid three-quarter view, and reading with great concentration. What she is reading is not some fluffy novel, moreover, but Le Figaro, whose title is prominent in upside-down print in the foreground.

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