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Reflections on Different Art Media, Why Use Pastel, Part 25


Mary Cassatt-Pastels-Later Years / Mother-Child Studies

Some time ago we started researching two-dimensional art media and focused on the lesser-known medium of pastel. A second famous pastelist is currently being considered – Mary Cassatt (Rosalba Carriera of Venice, which has already been extensively discussed). Era after which pastels have faded until they are rediscovered by Degas and Whistler, two major impressionists, along with our investigation into present-day artist Mary Cassatt.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) was born in Alleghany City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) and spent most of her adult life in France, where she became one of the leading women of the Impressionist movement and a close friend of Edgar Degas. To date, we have covered her life through her first successes as an independent American artist living in Europe in the 1870s, through her growing frustration with the politics of the Paris Salon in the late 1870s, and then joining the Impressionist movement after Degas invited had to join their exhibition of 1878. At the same time, the two artists worked hard on a journal project that was never completed; However, through this intensive collaboration, they should remain friends for life. By the 1890s, Cassatt had become a powerful artist because of her own highly developed skills, including her experiments in printmaking, which were heavily influenced by a show by Japanese masters. And it was in 1894 that Mary bought the Chateau Beaufresne, where she and her family would spend summers for the rest of their lives.

Cassatt is probably best known for her portraits and figure studies of women, privileged women, from the same social classes she came from and to which she had easy access. Most often she chose to depict the daily life of her subjects. Her innate creativity coupled with her willingness to devote herself to the refinement of her skills exuded in her work as she gained confidence and experience. In her mature works, Cassatt, more than many of her contemporaries, demonstrated a complex understanding of modernist technique and chose to leave parts of her compositions unfinished, which created a graphic spontaneity. Called nonfini or “unfinished,” Mary undoubtedly adopted this practice from Edouard Manet, another of her mentors. As a contrast to these open spaces, there were passages made of dense pastel. For example, in Mary’s work, Adaline Havemeyer in a White Hat, there is the sleek traditional rendering of the subject’s face and hair with exquisitely detailed hair and eyes and in the subject’s hand grasping a hint of a necklace. The hat and the ruffled blouse of the motif are also naked sketches, while the background is kept in an intense turquoise-blue magnificent tone. Another work from a similar period was Mother and Child (1898 for hat and 1906 for the latter, using the same techniques). The face, especially the profile, and the hair of the mother are most carefully drawn, while that of the child is drawn more simply. Here, too, there is a large area of ​​open space and the background color – a bright yellow-green – and the mother’s shirt – a deep blue – create an intensity that contracts with the sketched shirt and the child’s clothing.

Cassatt Adaline Havemeyer in a white hat, probably started in 1898.  Pastel on woven paper.Mother and Child, 1906 pastels.

Mary’s reserves (uncolored areas) consciously used the leaf color. While Cassatt preferred blue paper, there were and are a variety of hues that were widely used by her pastelist peers. These colored primers were comparable to the tinted primers that were applied to Impressionist canvases. The tinted canvas provided an element of color that offered additional play against the loosely painted strokes that were characteristic of the Impressionist style. Today, most of these colored papers have faded to a warm brown as seen in the examples above, due to the unstable synthetic aniline dyes (the first coal tar paints) used in their manufacture, a tone change introduced by the artists who made them used.

Cassatt’s experimentation with imparting luminosity is perhaps the most modernist feature she shows in white hat portraits. One of the main focuses of Impressionism was the interest in the representation of the light effect. One of the attractions of pastel is its special optical properties – scattered light is reflected from a multitude of particles on a microscopic level, together with the light reflected from the irregular surface of the composition itself. (Pastel naturally creates an uneven, rough texture with every stroke, a structural roughness that further intensifies the light.) These layers created a luminosity, a total contrast to the carefully painted surfaces of salon art, which are reminiscent of the qualities of fresco, gouache and Tempera, which was greatly admired by the avant-garde artists of the time.

Luminosity of skin and hair.

Cassatt used this characteristic refractive quality of pastel in her mother-child portrait by applying the pastel densely and irregularly and manipulating its powdery texture. The glowing skin tone of mother and child and the green background also demonstrate their mastery of the medium. While Mary uses straightforward, flat strokes for her hair and dress, the pastel in these sections has graininess when viewed from an angle. Cassatt’s unusual texture does not result from traditional dry pastel application or from pastel pencils dipped in water (another texturing technique). Rather, it is the result of an experimental technique that Cassatt developed by working with steam on paper.

More on pastels and the final years of Mary’s painting career which was heavily focused on the future studies of mother and child. And more of their works that are known and loved.

Janet Cornacchio is an artist member of the Front Street Art Gallery, president of the Scituate Arts Association and a realtor. You can contact them at jcornacch@aol.com.


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