After studying in Italy and Spain in the early 1870s, Mary Cassatt settled in Paris, then the capital of modern art, in 1873. In about 1877 she met Edgar Degas and soon thereafter joined the circle of Impressionist painters. She was one of just four women, and the only American, to become part of the French independent movement. She exhibited with the group in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. This picture was included in the 1880 exhibition.
During her early Impressionist years, Cassatt addressed subjects that showed the activities of middle-class women at the theater, in domestic interiors and small gardens, taking tea, sewing, or reading. Some of these themes may have been suggested by the plethora of fashion magazines that appeared in Paris starting in the 1860s. In fact, Cassatt’s own work was featured in an article written by Claude Monet’s patron Ernest Hoschedé in L’Art de la mode in 1881. Like the women in fashion plates, Cassatt’s women reflect the activities of the modern world. Here, a female figure dressed in casual deshabille (a morning dress worn while at home) enjoys a private moment. This modern woman reads not one of the romantic novels associated with eighteenth-century portraits of women reading such as those by Jean-Baptiste Greuze or Jean-Honoré Fragonard, but rather a newspaper or contemporary periodical. Cassatt enjoyed painting such informality, and the morning dress provided an opportunity to lighten further the Impressionist palette. The barely visible green railing and the flowers surrounding her head are extensions of the privacy of the home, and they link Cassatt’s female portraits with the intimacy and accoutrements of domestic spaces. Cassatt’s female subjects are not simply decorative, however; they show an active intelligence and are absorbed in activity.
Japanese art was all the rage in Paris during and after the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle, and many artists, including Edgar Degas, Félix Bracquemond, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, James Tissot, and Alfred Stevens, collected Japanese prints. The critic Armand Silvestre wrote of this picture that he liked "the woman reading on the balcony, where peonie shrubs frame her blonde head a true model of Japanese art in its absence of distant space and the happy mixture of color in an entirely pleasant range." He saw the influence of Japanese aesthetics in the flattened picture space, high-keyed palette, and broad, abstract geometrical forms, such as the circular arms of the chair and the pattern of the dress. In this early work, Cassatt experimented with the japonisme that would come to full flower a little more than a decade later in her masterpiece, The Child’s Bath of 1893.
In April 1890 Cassatt visited the large exhibition of Japanese prints on view at the École des Beaux-Arts. After returning to the exhibition several times (once with Degas, once with Berthe Morisot), Cassatt approached her own painting with a new sensibility that combined the symbolism of the woman-and-child theme with a flattened, highly decorative, and graphically oriented aesthetic. The Child’s Bath was a continuation of an experiment with Japanese aesthetics she had begun in a series of ten color prints that documented activities in a woman’s day. Many of the same props and compositional devices Cassatt used in her color prints were repeated, albeit on a grander scale and with greater chromatic variety, in The Child’s Bath. Like her series of prints "à la Japonaise," this painting emphasizes decorative pattern and a plunging perspective that fills the flattened picture plane. The oriental carpet, the woman’s striped dress, the geometry of the pitcher and bowl, and the Rococo Revival chest and wallpaper in the background meld together in a tapestry of pinks, whites, and greens. The abstract pattern negates the illusionistic depth of the picture space, pushing color and line to the surface of the canvas.
Throughout the 1890s and after the turn of the century, Cassatt’s work became increasingly monumental and symbolic. Her work reflects the late nineteenth-century fascination with maternity and the new social emphasis on child care prevalent in the literature of the period. Cassatt concentrated on the theme of the nude child, arising from a nap or after a bath, always accompanied by a clothed female adult. The nude-child theme allowed the artist to explore the nature of innocence, and physical tenderness and sensuality outside a sexual context. The figures do not look at each other but rather at their reflections in the water. Intimacy is suggested through the tactile sensations of the water shared by mother and child and the touching of their hands and feet. Strong modeling, firm drawing, and the child’s compact and oddly proportioned body impart an unequivocal, unidealized physicality to the scene, which produces a feeling of great tenderness. Focusing on the tactile qualities of Cassatt’s maternal themes, the critic Félix Fénéon wrote: "And always, these large, beautiful, masculine hands that Cassatt likes to give her women, have decorative functions, especially when set against the bodies of naked infants, they disturb the lines, then blend with them to create unexpected arabesques." Cassatt’s studies of women and children together depicted the woman’s sphere, but also alluded to the sexual life of women not through sexuality itself, but through the nineteenth century’s socially sanctioned emphasis on maternity.
Like many of the other original members of the Impressionist circle, Cassatt spent much of her time living in the countryside during the 1890s. She bought a chateau fifty miles northwest of Paris, and there, for the rest of her career, concentrated on images of children, or mothers and children, in both the pastel and oil media. Her female imagery was a socially conservative reflection of her own interest in early feminism and the women’s suffrage movement. She lived to see women vote in the United States, but not in France, where universal suffrage was not adopted until after World War II. Historians today consider Cassatt, along with Whistler and Sargent, to be among the most important nineteenth-century American expatriate artists.
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