Mary Cassatt's Portrait of an Italian Lady, painted approximately one year after her transition from academic work into the more modern style of Impressionism, is much more than an ordinary portrait in the Impressionist style. It is a classic example of the intuitive approach to her sitters that Cassatt executed with great skill throughout her career. For Cassatt, the involvement of the sitter is an integral part of the picture. Evident in almost all of Cassatt's work, the pensive mood and penetrating gaze of the sitter signify her engagement beyond the realm of the portrait. The lively brushstroke and dramatic color scheme, and the diagonal motion that extends from the sitter's face and to beyond the left margin of the composition, make this work a superb example of Impressionism.
After struggling for almost a decade for recognition in the established Paris Salon, Mary Cassatt eagerly accepted Edgar Degas's invitation to join him in exhibiting her work with the other members of the Impressionist group. While they have become known as Impressionists, in the late nineteenth century, they "preferred to be called 'Independents'" (N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 37). The term "Independents" is significant as it implies a forceful and noble rejection of the starched Parisian art world in favor of purely autonomous conduct. In fact, "Reminiscing thirty-five years after the fact, Cassatt still had strong feeling about the decision; in 1912 she told her biographer, Achille Segard, 'I accepted with joy. I hated conventional art. I began to live.' Clearly, she recalled the years of trying to find her way in the labyrinthe art world of the 1870s, juggling the demands of her conservative American milieu, official taste, and her own independence, as a dark period, and she considered it the turning point of her life when, at the age of thirty-three she was given the opportunity to paint and exhibit freely." (Mary Cassatt, p. 37)
Cassatt's artistic output changed dramatically as soon as she made the bold shift to Impressionism. Her works immediately took on a more daring character. Portrait of an Italian Lady, executed circa 1878 is just one example of the type of work that burst from Cassatt's imagination as soon as she was freed from the conventions of the Paris Salon. "In Portrait of an Italian Lady Cassatt adds to the informal pose and the use of white and pastel colors a psychological element typical of Impressionist figure studies. With head tilted and eyelids lowered, the subject seems to be listening to or watching something outside the picture's limits, and this gives the viewer the feeling of having happened on the scene, of sharing with the artist the role of observer." (Mary Cassatt, p. 43) This work is a brilliant example of the principles of Impressionism applied with Cassatt's zest, creativity and intelligence. It clearly illustrates why she was considered "one of the most intelligent interpreters of the new art outside the original circle." (Mary Cassatt, p. 37)
While Cassatt's style was changing dramatically at this time, she was also adding an element of intimacy to her subjects. Classic in the work of the Impressionists, Cassatt presents her viewers with a series of contradictions in her presentation of the real world. The serious gaze of the sitter is fixed on an unknown object or activity, or perhaps her mind wanders in contemplation. However, her look is not somber, in fact, there is the trace of a smile on her lips. Furthermore, the colorful setting would seem to preclude a grave situation. Like other artist's, Cassatt's "subjects [were] drawn from the world around [her] with an ironic eye, [and] displayed a fragile balance between the public and the private, discretion and indiscretion, beauty and ugliness. A rigid or uninformed viewer could easily be confused by the transient and shifting effects of this style and, with some justification, feel mocked by these sophisticated artists. However, Cassatt was intellectually nimble and prided herself on her own penetrating opinions on art and society. From her very first efforts to incorporate Impressionist devices into her work she was fascinated with the aesthetic power of a painting's successful balance of contradictory elements." (Mary Cassatt, p. 40)
It is rare that an artist's earliest pursuits with a new medium or philosophy are as accomplished as Cassatt's earliest forays into Impressionism. Cassatt's first products in what was to become her celebrated style and technique not only foreshadow the magnificent body of work that she would produce for the rest of her career, but they reflect her innate artistic ability. While the Impressionists' early exhibitions were not universally praised by art critics, a number of Cassatt's works were commended. Portrait of an Italian Lady is certainly the type of work that spurred critics to take notice of her and write as follows: "It is equally impossible to visit the exhibition without finding most interesting Mlle. Cassatt's portraits. An utterly remarkable... sense of elegance and distinction marks these portraits. Mlle. Cassatt deserves very special attention..." (L. Duranty, "The Fourth Exhibition by a Group of Independent Artists," La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, April 19, 1879, as quoted in Mary Cassatt: A Retrospective, N.M. Mathews, Ed., New York, 1996, p. 124)
This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.