Mary Cassatt, accomplished in a range of media, was first introduced to pastel by Impressionist painter Edgar Degas in Paris in the 1870s and she began to use the velvety medium increasingly following the turn of the century. Pastel provided Cassatt the ability to capture the brilliancy of light and tone in quick, expressive strokes and there is a sense of freedom and immediacy in Girl in a Hat with Black Ribbon not present in her more studied oil paintings. Here Cassatt incorporates rich, gestural strokes of yellow, blue, green and black to create an endearing and engaging portrait of a young girl in her celebrated style.
Harriet K. Stratis writes of Cassatt's work in pastel, "perhaps pastel--often thought of as painting in the dry manner--provided Cassatt with the opportunity to explore...chromatic relationships with more immediacy than painting, which does not allow for the spontaneous execution she found so desirable...The wide range of newly available pastel colors and colored papers permitted Cassatt to bring the methods of the Old Masters up to date, while putting into practice the chromatic theories of her day." ("Innovation and Tradition in Mary Cassatt's Pastels: A Study of Her Methods and Materials," Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, Chicago, Illinois, 1999, p. 217)
After 1900, Cassatt chose to use the same models repeatedly, preferring to depict children from Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, the village near her country home, Beaufresne, fifty miles northwest of Paris. 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 subject of Girl in a Hat with Black Ribbon closely relates to several works from the period including Simone and Her Mother in the Garden (1901-02, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan), Sketch of a Girl in a Straw Hat Outlined in Black Velvet (1901, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois) and Simone Seated on the Grass Next to Her Mother 1901-02, location unknown) in which the young blonde wears the same straw hat with black ribbon. Indeed, the broad strokes of green and yellow in Girl in a Hat with Black Ribbon allude to the outdoor settings of the aforementioned works.
At the turn of the century, Cassatt began to increasingly focus on the depiction of individual children and works such as Girl in a Hat with Black Ribbon are more pensive and introspective than her previous depictions of children, reflecting the artist's increased interest in child maturation and psychology. "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. The era Freud ushered in had a new attitude: the child became the unconscious repository of adult characteristics. To some extent Cassatt's exploration of the child--not the baby--in adult costume, pose, and expression reflects aspects of early-twentieth-century psychology, absorbed by Cassatt in her wide reading of sociological, psychological and parapsychological literature." (N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 125)
The quality and appeal of works such as Girl in a Hat with Black Ribbon earned Cassatt a reputation as a leading painter of children both in France and in her native America and largely account for the enduring popularity of her art. As demonstrated by the present work, this critical acclaim was undoubtedly due to her unparalleled ability to capture not only the beauty, but also the individuality of her young subjects.
This pastel will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.