Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Mary Cassatt was exceptional in many ways; one of the few successful female artists of the era she was also the only American member of the French Impressionists. From a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Cassatt first came to Paris in 1865 to study painting and ended up making Paris her home for much of the rest of her life. After mastering academic painting and exhibiting at the Paris Salon, she was drawn to the avant-garde trends of Impressionism and in 1879 was invited by her friend and mentor, Edgar Degas, to exhibit with the Impressionists (she would exhibit at four of their eight exhibitions, in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886). ‘I accepted with joy,’ Cassatt told her biographer. ‘At last, I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognised who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art’.
But while she embraced the techniques and influences of Impressionism she developed her own unique artistic language that often explored themes rarely touched on by male artists: the contemporary lives of middle-class women. Her choice of subject was somewhat inescapable as, like the women she portrayed, Cassatt’s social life was limited. A middle class woman in late 19th-century Paris was chaperoned wherever she went in public, be it a park, theatre or shop, and she could not enter without serious social consequences the bars, musical halls and brothels which served as the subjects and inspiration for many male artists. Cassatt thus depicted the world she knew; recording with insight and originality, women like herself, writing letters, sewing, reading or engaging in other domestic or social activities. She became known for her intimate portrayal of mothers and their children, but also for individual portraits such as this rather commanding-looking lady with a tea set.
Her name is Mrs Robert Moore Riddle (died 1892) and she was a cousin of Mary Cassatt’s mother. Mrs Riddle sits at a table with one hand on the teapot of an Asian-looking blue-and-white gilded porcelain tea service, which her daughter had given to the Cassatt family. Her cool blue eyes, which echo the blue of the tea set, gaze out of the picture frame. Looking crisply refined, she is elegantly dressed in expensive fabric and lace and appears about to pour tea for unseen guests. However, she does not appear to be a particularly lively companion. Almost iconic in her stillness, she seems rather intimidating, which may partially explain why Mrs Riddle’s daughter refused the painting (she also thought her mother’s nose looked too big). Thus Mary Cassatt ended up putting this painting aside until 1914, when a friend saw it and encouraged Cassatt to exhibit the portrait. It was shown later that year at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris and created a sensation.
Despite the Riddle family’s negative response, the painting is nonetheless a superb reflection of Cassatt’s fascination with figure composition and Japanese art. Cassatt shared with Degas and other Impressionists an appreciation of Japanese prints which emphasised outline, silhouette, and flattened space. Here Cassatt was clearly inspired by Japanese artists’ use of solid colours within stylised outlines and by their emphasis on the surface pattern of the print rather than the illusion of space. The foreground and background surfaces are similarly coloured, creating ambiguous spatial relations and Mrs Riddle is framed in a series of rectangles that become more defined as they recede and that are abruptly cut off at the top of the picture. Not only was Cassatt inspired by the technique and composition of Japanese prints, she discovered fresh approaches to the depiction of women’s everyday lives, which were commonly depicted in Japanese art.
Mixing these exotic influences with Impressionism and with her own unique, female interpretation of what modern life looks and feels like, Cassatt captured a segment of late 19th-century life that otherwise might have gone unrecorded.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1883 Edward Burne-Jones: The Wheel of Fortune, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1885 Vincent van Gogh: The Potato Eaters, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum
1885 Paul Cézanne: The Bather, New York, MOMA