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Cassatt, Mała dziewczynka w niebieskim fotelu

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Mary Cassatt, Mała Dziewczynka na Niebieskim Fotelu, 1878, olej na płótnie, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Obywatelka świata

Jeśli, jak stwierdził ostatnio jeden z historyków sztuki*, Camille Pissarro był spoiwem, które trzymało impresjonizm w ryzach, to Mary Stevenson Cassatt posiadała podobne właściwości. Obalając mit, że Amerykanie w swoich artystycznych gustach byli zaściankowi - a wręcz dzicy - Cassatt reprezentowała wszystko, tylko nie to; obyta kulturalnie kobieta, wykształcona w Londynie, Paryżu i Berlinie, mówiąca płynnie po francusku i niemiecku, spędziła cztery lata na Pensylwańskiej Akademii Sztuk Pięknych, zanim zaczęła studiować we Francji pod kuratelą Jean-Leona Gérôme'a, Thomasa Couture'a i innych.
Pies (detal), Mary Cassatt, Mała Dziewczynka na Niebieskim Fotelu, 1878, olej na płótnie, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Pies (detal), Mary Cassatt, Mała Dziewczynka na Niebieskim Fotelu, 1878, olej na płótnie, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Po wybuchu wojny francusko-pruskiej kontynuowała swoje podróże, spędzając rok we Włoszech i w Hiszpanii, by w 1874 roku osiąść ponownie w Paryżu, dokładnie w roku pierwszej Wystawy Impresjonistycznej. Cassatt wystawiła wtedy jednak swoją pracę w Salonie, pracę, która spodobała się Degasowi. W następnych latach jednak nie udawało jej się z sukcesem wystawiać się w Salonie, co przypisywała głównie uprzedzeniom złożonego w całości z mężczyzn jury.
Zrozumiałe zatem, że już przed 1877, w którym to roku Degas zaprosił ją do współpracy, Cassatt zainteresowała się grupą artystów z niezależną wystawą i dla których płeć nie zdawała się stanowić żadnej bariery; liczba i jakość prac Berthe Morisot na pierwszych wystawach w oczywisty sposób nie odbiegały od tych prezentowanych przez mężczyzn. To samo można powiedzieć o jedenastu obrazach, które Cassatt wystawiła na czwartej Wystawie Impresjonistycznej - wsród nich jednych z jej najlepiej przyjętych prac, takich jak Reading Le Figaro, Woman in a Loge, In the Loge i Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair

Produced in 1878, it shows a girl sprawled on a blue armchair in a room with three other chairs of a matching design. She stares at the floor unaware or unconcerned about the portrait that is being painted of her. On the chair opposite her a lapdog dozes, a dark patch that neatly balances the dark tones of her clothing. There are no tables or ornaments, nothing to offer the viewer or the girl, who appears tired and bored, any distractions, only two large windows that are closed and heavily cropped by the upper edge of the canvas.
Girl sprawled on blue armchair (detail), Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Girl sprawled on blue armchair (detail), Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
The dominance of the overstuffed furniture with its vibrant blue upholstery captures an odd sense of restlessness and languorousness, both matched by the girl’s pose. A parent would tell her to sit up properly and there is a rebellious, devil-may-care attitude in her comfortably lounging form. She has been dressed with due observance to fashion, the tartan shawl matching her socks and the bow in her carefully arranged hair; her shoes are spotless and the buckles sparkle; literally dolled up. All this primness however is of absolutely no concern to the girl whose unselfconscious pose presents as Petra Chu puts it: “a radically new image of childhood.”
Chair (detail), Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Chair (detail), Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
That a woman produced the image is, of course, no coincidence. The nursery in middle class homes was a space that was rarely if ever visited by men; child-rearing being an exclusively female occupation, little wonder then that few male artists painted babies or young children. But, of course, it is not in a nursery that we find ourselves, but a drawing room, clean to the point of sanitized, a room in which, just like her costume, the girl seems out of place, swamped by the massive abundance of chairs, a point emphasized compositionally in that each overlaps the other. The upshot of all this is to create a feeling—if not so extreme as alienation—then certainly a sense of disorientation, one that seems to capture, as subtly and incisively as any artist before her, the huffing and puffing tiresomeness a child feels within the social constraints of an adult’s world, a world that seems almost oppressively gendered.
Girl (detail), Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Girl (detail), Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
The girl herself was the daughter of a friend of Degas’s and the painting is often cited as an example of Degas’s influence on Cassatt. The two certainly had much in common, if only in terms of their backgrounds. Both were born into the upper-middle-class, the children of bankers, and both had strong connections to America, Degas’s mother and grandmother were American and he had stayed with his family in New Orleans in 1872-3.
The similarities in their work, certainly in this period, are also striking. In its asymmetrical composition, the casual, unposed treatment of the sitter, the weightiness and solidity of its forms in contrast to that grey mercurial dollop of negative space, its use of cropping and loose brushwork, as well as the interest in the private moment that we find so often in his pastels, the hallmarks of Degas’s work can clearly be found in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.

Japanese Prints

The influence of Japanese prints is also a shared feature. Notice how in Degas’s famous L’Absinthe our eye is led in and up through the opposing diagonals of the marble-topped tables which seem almost to be floating. A similar effect is created by Cassatt in the blue furniture, to such an extent that we are left uncertain whose point of view we are looking from—a child’s at eye level or an adult’s from above. The composition, however, still coheres, the space and its various junctures having been carefully conceived to create a balanced whole.
Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876, oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)
Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876, oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)
These startling similarities may be accounted for by the fact that Degas had a hand in painting the background, a practice that seems shocking today. Cassatt seemed not to mind, though, writing several years later of how Degas “advised me on the background, he even worked on the background.” The last part she underlined suggesting that she even considered it a privilege. It was common practice for male artists to take a patronizing approach to their female counterparts. “Manet sermonizes me”, Berthe Morisot complained to her sister Edma. It is inconceivable, however, to think that either Degas or Manet, whose influence is certainly in evidence in Cassatt’s lavish use of cobalt blue and in the tonal treatment of the girl’s legs, would or could have painted such an image.

The Splendid Legacy

Like Manet and Degas, Cassatt spent time in Italy copying the great works there, including, in her case, those of Correggio. Perhaps there is something of that old master’s dreamy bambini in the pose of the little girl too. Either way, running alongside her distinctly modern artistic vision, the classical tradition she was trained in is never far away. She could be quite snobby about it in fact. She thought little of Paul Durand-Ruel, for instance, the greatest of the Impressionist dealers, for knowing next to nothing about Italian art. This did not put her off providing him with contacts when he travelled to New York with Impressionist works, including two of her own, which he exhibited in the spring of 1886. “Had it not been for Durand-Ruel, caviar would have been a good deal rarer,” Renoir once said to his son.
Yet, in the international success story of Impressionism, Cassatt is also owed her due. For among the contacts she gave Durand-Ruel was the sugar magnate Henry O. Havemeyer, whose wife Lousine was a close friend of hers, having studied art together in Paris. As the couple’s artistic consultant for the rest of her life Cassatt played a central role in the development of one of the greatest private collections ever amassed in America. Today New York’s Metropolitan holds hundreds of paintings bequeathed by the Havemeyer family, including, the Museum claims, “the most complete group of Degas’s works ever assembled” and twenty works by Mary Cassatt, a woman remarkable not only for helping shape contemporary tastes in American connoisseurship, but also, over the course of her long artistic career, for producing work of extraordinary quality that helped transform American art itself into a world-class enterprise.
Esej: Ben Pollitt
*Waldemar Januszcak

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