Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas

Mary Cassatt, Baby's First Caress 1891. 
pastel on paper
Form: Pastel. Cassatt was very adept at the use of pastel and blending of color. Notice the symmetrical composition and analogous color scheme. You can find a lot of blue and green in the shadows of the skin, as well as in the shadows o the white dress. This work is very reminiscent of a renaissance Mary with Christ-child. Whether that is done on purpose is difficult to say.

Iconography: Mary Cassatt had a recurring theme of mothers and children in most of her work. At a time when the male gaze still had quite a stronghold on the painting world, Cassatt was busy showing motherhood and womanhood in a more gentle, less sexually tense way. She was also a close acquaintance of Degas, and he taught her much about painting and pastels, but she retained her own style and way of interpreting the world. While this work is smoothly executed and worked out, it is also very gestural. there is a lot of movement to be found in the the body of the small child, and even in the way in which the mother inclines her head. 

Context: Cassatt was unique, not because she was an extraordinarily talented artist, but because she was a woman in a genre that, at that time, was very closed to the female gender. It must be also be remembered that it was not just the art world that was closed to women, but society as well. In the Victorian era, when Cassatt lived, women were not allowed out without an escort, they had to remain covered from chin to ankle, and anything that smacked of sexuality, even an uncovered table leg was frowned upon!



Cassatt, Mary. At the Opera.
1880. Oil on canvas. 32 x 26 in. 
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
Form: Oil on canvas, using a warm, earth toned palette. The use of cropping is very much in line with Degas, and resembles a photograph. The picture plane is divided in half, with the woman being the center of he picture by virtue of being represented so prominently in the foreground, which also adds to the illusion of depth with how the rest of the audience is portrayed in the balcony seats. 

Iconography: Lets go back to the idea of the 'male gaze'. The first overt difference is the way in which Cassatt is presenting a night out at the opera, to how Degas would present it. Cassatt shows a woman, whom by her attire we can safely say is a widow, focused intently through her opera glasses at the scene on stage. Cassatt is showing this woman to be enthralled, interested, and intelligent. Degas, when showing an opera scene, focuses on the women as dancers, frivolous, young, and naive. He was the ultimate flaneur. But, look more closely at this work. As the young widow watches the opera, in the balcony across from her we see a man focusing his eyeglass on her! Though humorous, Cassatt is deftly pointing out the impropriety of such behavior while at the same time conceding that there is little that could be done or said about it, it was the males prerogative. Also, at this time, even though she was a widow, it was considered most improper for the woman to be out unescorted. A signal to the men, perhaps, that she was available according to the social rules of the time.

Context: According to, "Opera and theatre were popular subjects for the Impressionists, often treated by Degas and Renoir, but here Cassatt tries something different. She presents her subject in the role of viewer. A role generally taken on by the male. Analysis of this painting centers around notions of gazing and the spectator. Like Cassatt herself, this woman is clear sighted and determined. With the tools of sight in her hands, she immerses herself in the activity of looking. Veins straining in her arm, she is oblivious to the spectator, and to the man who gazes at her from the distant balcony. This painting can be compared to Renoirs Loge (1874)."


DEGAS,Edgar Morning Bath c1883 
pastel on paper 27"X13" 
Chicago,A.I. Impressionism 
Form: Pastel on paper, analogous color scheme. The composition is again reminiscent of photographs, note the cropping of the bed and curtain. It gives an almost uncomfortable and cramped feeling to the work, the way she is somewhat crammed into the corner. There is, again, a plethora of blues and greens, non-local colors being used for the skin tones. If you look at her hip and chest, the color is almost completely blue with a white highlight, a reflection of the colors from the drapes. 

Iconography: This is less about the bath and more about the naked lady! As we will see by comparing this to Cassatts' version of the morning bath, Degas was all about voyeurism. We can tell from the rumpled bedclothes that the woman has recently awoke from her nights' rest, we can assume that she is stepping into the bath in preparation for her day. The view is from the bed, as though the artist is taking the viewpoint of someone who is perhaps still in he bed and watching from across the room. the viewer cannot tell much about the woman, what her face looks like, her age, her emotions, her personality. But we are led to believe that that is not as important as the fact that she is, well, naked.

Context: Degas had a bit of a reputation as a misogynist. Not that he disliked women, per se, more that he held them in a lower regard than he held men. 


CASSATT, Mary The Bath c1882 
o/c 39"x26" 
Chicago,A.I. Impressionism
Form: Pastel, very lifelike palette, the skin tones are more earthy and contain much less non-local colors. The composition is central to the page, but it hold the viewers' interest because of the unique vantage point and angles it creates. Note the attention to detail in the patterns she has carefully rendered, on the wallpaper, rug, dress, pitcher and even the painted detail on the dresser.

Iconography: Following the theme of mothers and children, this is one of Cassatts more well-recognized works. The point of the work is not voyeuristic so much as it is an intimate peek into the bond between a mother and child. Bathing here is for the sole purpose of cleanliness, the mother is gently bathing the girls toes as she looks on with interest. It is a life lesson, on he importance of keeping clean as well as a time of day where mother and daughter get to spend time with one another. There is no underlying wink-wink-nudge-nudge as we find with Degas Morning Bath. This, compared to the previous work, is a study of the innocence and purity of childhood.

Context: Again, Cassatt has taken one of the recurring themes of the time and shown it from a female viewpoint. 


Cassatt, The Letter, 1891 
Form: Etching on paper. Etching can be a frustrating and time consuming process, and it also serves here to show the range of talent Cassat possessed. She has employed her knowledge of painting to create a balance composition with a believable depth to it, and was able to incorporate patterns throughout, both n the dress and the wallpaper, which is almost as time consuming to ink as the entire etching is to create!

Iconography: Cassatt is deviating from the norm of showing women as objects or entertainers. Instead, she is showing them as they are, just people who are tethered to the same everyday mundane tasks as men. The look on this woman's face is one of disinterest, boredom. She has not written a scandalous, passion filled note to a secret lover. More likely she is sending out a letter to a relative, or an invitation to tea. In the Victorian era, this was just a part of household duty, and nothing to be overly excited about. Cassatt is taking the stance that not all women are unattainable, exotic, or devastatingly beautiful. Sometimes, they're just...boring. 

Context:  "In the spring of 1890, Paris was dazzled by an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints, which Cassatt visited repeatedly. She wrote to her fellow artist Berthe Morisot: "Seriously you must not miss [the show] . . . I dream of it and don't think of anything else but color on copper."  Inspired by the compositions, colors, and themes she had observed, Cassatt began her own group of color prints. Her series-like one by Kitagawa Utamaro, a Japanese master she admired-depicts typical moments in a woman's day."


Mary Cassatt Maternal Caress, 
drypoint and aquatint in color,
14 7/16 x 10 9/16 inches 
Terra Foundation for the Arts, 
Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1994.5
Form: Aquatint, printmaking. Aquatint is a printmaking process by which a fine layer of rosin is put onto a copper plate, and then by whatever technique the artist chooses to employ, the amount of gradation and detail can be controlled by numerous exposures in the acid, or application of hard or soft ground. In this instance, she chose drypoint. It is a very symmetrical composition with a soft color palette and excellent use of patterns to create visual interest.

Iconography: This looks like a Japanese woodcut. there can be no doubt as to her inspiration for his piece. Everything from the linework to the colors is reminiscent of the clean lines and kimono patterns found in a traditional Japanese wood block print. Cassatt, once again, is able to keep her theme of motherhood and genre scenes, but translate it masterfully onto a copper plate. The process may be time consuming, but it is a hundred times easier than attempting the same scene on a wood block.

Context: A traditional Japanese woodblock print bears the name of the master artist, who came up with the design. However, the carving itself is done by up to twenty different artisans, each highly skilled in that one particular area. For instance, there will be one artist who does only kimono patterns. The next who does only the face and hair, then on to the artist whose specialty is carving trees, and next one who does the waves. It explains why many woodcuts from different master-artists retain a certain uniformity, but also why they are so consistently clean. The soft pine used for wood carving is very delicate, and it is an extremely time-consuming process. There would be no way that any of the large scale carvings could be done by one person alone, and maintain its' high level of quality. (special thanks to Jimin Lee for this bit of information!)