This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.
Françoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading is a superb example of Mary Cassatt's mature paintings of children. Cassatt received much acclaim for her pictures of single children, returning to the subject throughout her career and exploring it in various mediums. Cassatt painted Françoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading circa 1909, during her final, and most serious, exploration of the theme of the single child. "In the course of revising her approach to the mother and child theme Cassatt embarked on a series of pastels, drawings, and drypoints of children that preoccupied her for the rest of her working career. She had painted children many times before, but there had always been an obvious incentive, either a portrait commission or contact with her young nieces and nephews. This series seems to have had no such motivation" (N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 125).
Louisine and Harry Havemeyer, were avid art collectors and close friends of Cassatt. In 1901, the couple invited the artist to travel with them to Italy and Spain, in pursuit of important paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This trip resulted in Cassatt's renewed exposure to the Old Master painters and spurred stylistic changes in her work, which would be evident for the remainder of her career. Nancy Mathews writes, "She set to work as soon as she got back to Paris and wrote with the mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty with which the immersion in the old masters had left her: 'All day long I work! I am wild to do something decent after all the fine things we have seen.'" (ibid., p. 265)
The trip was the catalyst for a decisive stylistic shift. In contrast to Cassatt's earlier work, Françoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading and other paintings from this period demonstrate a grander use of space and proportion, more developed backgrounds and a greater attention to fabric and texture (fig. 2). Also, as in the present work, Cassatt began to set her subjects further back in her compositions, depicting them in three-quarter view rather than half-length, as was her custom in earlier years. This allowed the artist to approach her sitters from new perspectives and to incorporate additional contextual elements into the composition. This painting also demonstrates Cassatt's increased focus on complexity in her backgrounds. The inclusion of the landscape behind the figure, which appears in only a few of the artist's works, creates a more variegated background and allows for a spatial depth that is absent in the compressed spaces of her earlier images. As a result of this stylistic transformation, the first decade of the twentieth century is considered by many to be the artist's most accomplished period of production.
Similarly significant was Cassatt's choice, after 1900, to use the same models repeatedly. The artist preferred to use as models children from Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, the village near her country home, Beaufresne, fifty miles northwest of Paris, and Françoise appears to have held a distinct significance for Cassatt, as the young brunette appears in multiple pictures from circa 1908 to 1909. While it is important to stress that Cassatt's works of this period are compositions rather than formal portraits, by repeatedly utilizing the same models, "she attempted to achieve an intimacy and familiarity with her subjects, as found in her earlier family portraits" (E.J. Bullard, Mary Cassatt: Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, p. 68).
The artist demonstrates a greater interest in the texture and cut of materials as demonstrated by the bold brushwork in Françoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading. "Always sensitive to the interrelation of art and fashion--first as a genre painter and then as a painter of contemporary life--she had seen in clothing both its symbolic and its design potential. In the various phases of her work Cassatt stressed different aspects of costume, but usually the specific texture and pattern were less important to her than the effects of silhouette and cut, which were a means of articulating the body underneath. In the late period Cassatt's handling of costume is more obvious: attention is paid to the texture of heavy materials... and to insistent linear patterns... In these cases the underlying structure, the shape and movement of the figure, is less clear" (ibid., p. 125).
Clothing is particularly important in Cassatt's paintings of young girls as, in contrast to earlier works, the artist often portrays them in adult attire. In the present work she chooses a formal violet dress for Françoise. "These youngsters, in costumes that could not possibly accommodate childlike behavior, appear not only overdressed but dressed in over-sized clothes. The hats, coats, and bows--sometimes even the chairs they sit in--engulf the tiny figures. The impression is created of the child playacting in its mother's castoffs, acting out a role in an outsized world. These children are far more composed than those in Cassatt's early paintings... they understand the social responsibility that goes along with their clothes" (ibid., p. 129).
Françoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading also demonstrates Cassatt's increased focus on complexity in her backgrounds. The inclusion of the landscape behind the figure, which appears in only a few of the artist's works, creates a more variegated background and allows for a spatial depth that is absent in the compressed spaces of her earlier images.
Cassatt's later works, of which Françoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading is a superlative example, met with great acclaim from critics, dealers, collectors and students on both sides of the Atlantic. "Of all Cassatt's works, these images of children have the greatest popular appeal. They combine a number of the winning qualities of young girls--soft, satiny skin, "pretty" features, guileless expressions, charmingly awkward poses, and the frilliness of their clothes. Any surfeit of sweetness is counteracted by the masterly handling of every aspect" (ibid., p. 127).
Mary Cassatt, 1903.
(fig. 1) Mary Cassatt, Louisine Havemeyer, circa 1896. Collection of the Shelburne Museum.
(fig. 2) Mary Cassatt, Young Girl Reading, 1908. Seattle Art Museum.