At the outset of the twentieth century, Mary Cassatt had achieved widespread fame for her paintings of mothers and children. Although she had garnered recognition for this subject before, it was in the mature period of her career that she dedicated herself almost entirely to these works of domestic tranquility. Among the best is Children Playing with a Dog, which captures the tenderness and the mutual bond of a young mother and her children. Cassatt imbues the image with a spirit that is simultaneously timeless and modern, drawing on centuries of art historical precedents and transforming the traditional and familiar subject of maternity to reflect the modern era in which she lived.
Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Cassatt moved with her family at the age of five to Philadelphia, the city which she would consider her American home. For most of the 1850s, the family lived abroad, chiefly in France and Germany. While there, they visited the Universal Exposition in Paris and Gustave Courbet's Pavilion on Realism, both of which strongly influenced the young Cassatt who returned to America determined to be an artist. In 1861, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and quickly proved to be a promising student. Eager to return to Europe, she set sail for France at her earliest opportunity in 1866.
Cassatt was granted quick acceptance into Parisian art circles, and bolstered by her first public success at the Salon of 1868, she decided to remain and pursue her career abroad. After traveling to Italy and Spain, where she studied and copied Old Masters such as Correggio and Velásquez, she settled in Paris in 1875. Her work continued to be accepted at the Salon during these years, though her style became increasingly less conventional as she developed a more progressive, painterly technique. Her submission to the 1874 Salon, The Portrait of Mme Cortier, captured the eye of Edgar Degas, who invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists, and to join the group in forging a new mode of painting that broke from the conventions and strictures of the Academy. Cassatt enthusiastically received Degas' invitation, "I accepted with joy," she wrote, "At last I was able to work with an absolute independence without thinking about the opinion of a jury. Already I knew who were my true masters! I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live." (M.R. Witzling, Mary Cassatt: A Private World, Washington, D.C., 1991, p. 11) Cassatt's compositions became increasingly reflective of the tenets of Impressionism as she emphasized the effects of light and atmosphere, spontaneous and broken brushstrokes, a brighter palette, and a focus on contemporary everyday life in her art.
The only American to exhibit with the Impressionists, Cassatt solidified her reputation at the 1879 group show with a series of five theater pictures, including In the Box (1879, private collection, fig. 1). These works, which are largely considered Cassatt's first forays into a purely Impressionist style, met with great acclaim, established her reputation as an Impressionist, and consequently, were the foundation for her long and distinguished career.
The critical praise that Cassatt's work received is particularly compelling, as she and Degas were the only two among the exhibitors to receive positive reviews. George Lafenestre, in the conservative Revue des deux mondes, judged the Impressionists harshly in general, but made an exception for Degas and Cassatt, "M. Degas and Mlle. Cassatt are perhaps the only artists who distinguish themselves in this group of 'dependent' Independents, and who give the only attractiveness and excuse to this pretentious display of rough sketches and childish daubs, in the middle of which one is almost surprised to come across their neglected works. Both have a lively sense of the fragmented lighting in Paris interiors both find unique nuances of color to render the flesh tints of women fatigued by late nights and the rustling lightness of worldly fashions." ("Les Expositions d'Art," Revue des deux Mondes, May-June 1879, p. 481) Indeed, as her proud father wrote back home to her brother in Philadelphia, "Everybody says now that in [the] future it don't matter what the papers say about her--She is now known to the Art world as well as to the general public in such a way as not to be forgotten again so long as she continues to paint!!" (Robert Cassatt to Alexander Cassatt, 21 May 1879, as quoted in N. Mathews, Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, New York, 1984, p. 144) Cassatt continued to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1880, 1881 and 1886, firmly establishing her reputation as a talented revolutionary.
Degas and Cassatt were close friends and artistic allies whose shared stylistic concerns lead to mutual explorations of light, color and form. While both artists depicted scenes of modern life, they differed in their portrayal of women. This is particularly true of their theater pictures in which Degas depicted beautiful performers and Cassatt focused on the more intimate and private experience of women in the audience. While the beautiful ballerinas of Danseuses se baissant(Les Ballerines) (1885, private collection, fig. 2) are objects to be admired, the women of In the Box are not passive objects of the male gaze, but active observers of the performance on the stage as well as participants in the social drama enacted in the audience. "They do not exist, as so many women in art and literature, for the sake of the male artist, or the male hero, or the male buyer." (F. Getlein, Mary Cassatt: Paintings and Prints, New York, 1980, p. 8) This refusal to objectify women would characterize and distinguish Cassatt's work from her contemporaries for the remainder of her career. The intimacy and psychological component of In the Box and Cassatt's other depictions of women in the public sphere presages her later shift to woman's role in the domestic realm and her sophisticated and nuanced portrayal of them in works such as Children Playing with a Dog.
While Cassatt's work in the 1870s had reflected her interest in the experience of modern women in Parisian society, in the 1880s her emphasis began to shift from the public to the private areas of women's lives, and thus to the quiet, intimate moments spent within the domestic domain. Depictions of motherhood, largely comprised of simple, daily interactions between mothers and their children, were a natural outcome of Cassatt's movement into the private sphere, as these shared moments played a significant role in women's experience of modern life. The artist's interest in contemplative women, evident in her early portraits and depictions of contemporary young women such as In the Box, now extended to the various roles enacted within the domestic situation. Cassatt first exhibited her paintings of mothers and children at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. These works, which would become her signature subject, met with great acclaim.
By the turn of the century, Cassatt's celebrated reputation as one of America's most important expatriate artists had extended from France to the United States, a result of both a trip to her native country in 1898 and the thriving international market for her work, which was facilitated by such transatlantic dealers as Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. At this point, and for the remainder of her career, she was principally known for her scenes of mothers and children, which were presented without any sense of the sentimentality, clichéd anecdote, or over-romanticization that still appeared in the exhibitions of the Paris salon. In works such as Children Playing with a Dog the artist avoided these common conventions through her sophisticated focus on the exchanges of gesture, expression, and gaze, which allowed her to capture the psychological nuances and emotional complexities that characterize familial relationships. Indeed the present work exemplifies Cassatt's ability to update a traditional subject and to do so with an increasing interest in more complex compositional strategies.
The mother and child motif has been one to which, over the course of several centuries, artists have returned time and again. The familiar image of the Madonna and Child is ubiquitous in early religious iconography and in the art of the Medieval and Renaissance periods in particular. In her nineteenth century book titled Legends of the Madonna as Represented in the Fine Arts, Anna Jameson describes motherhood "as subject so consecrated by its antiquity, so hallowed by its profound significance, so endeared by its associations with the softest and deepest of our human sympathies, that the mind has never wearied of its repetition, nor the eye become satiated with its beauty." (as quoted in N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 76) The unique intimacy inherent in the bond between a mother and her child, and the resulting poignancy in artistic depictions of this relationship, has historically lent the subject an ageless and universal appeal for artists and viewers alike. Maternité was also a theme that enjoyed particular vogue at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries among both French and American artists with whom Cassatt associated. However, what distinguished her work from that of a number of her peers, as observed by the critic Royal Cortissoz, was that it remarkably "acknowledged sentiment, but avoided sentimentality." (as quoted in, G. Pollock, Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women, London, 1998, p. 18)
Although childless, Cassatt would remain closely engaged with the portrayal of motherhood throughout her career. The artist's continued interest in depicting mothers and children, particularly after the turn of the century, has often been attributed to several factors. The loss of her own mother, Katherine, in 1895, with whom she had shared a special bond, is said to have been deeply devastating for her, and thus these images may have been an expression of the artist's own nostalgia for her mother's care. Cassatt's advocacy of the women's suffrage movement also may have been an impetus for her allusion to the important societal role women played in their child-rearing duties. And certainly, her proliferation of variations on the theme was encouraged by strong public demand, and thus by her dealers' promptings. It was also fueled by a trip with Louisine Havemeyer to Italy and Spain, which cultivated the artist's renewed interest in the Old Masters.
In the 1890s Cassatt began working closely as an art advisor to Louisine and Harry Havemeyer, wealthy American collectors and close friends of the artist. She continued in this role with increasing frequency after the turn of the century, aiding the collectors in their endeavors to acquire works by both historic and modern masters. In the spring of 1901 the couple invited Cassatt to travel with them to Italy and Spain, in pursuit of important paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This trip spurred a creative outpouring from Cassatt and, as a result, the first decade of the twentieth century is considered by many to be the artist's most successful period. According to Nancy Mathews, "The trip...had a great impact on her own art. 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.'" (N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life, New York, 1994, p. 265)
Cassatt's renewed exposure to such works as those by Titian, El Greco and Sandro Bernini (fig. 3), was not only a catalyst for increased productivity, but also for stylistic changes which would be evident for the remainder of her career. In contrast to her earlier work, Children Playing with a Dog and other paintings from the period demonstrate a grander use of space and proportion, more developed backgrounds, greater attention to fabric and texture, heavier impasto and an increase in the sculptural volume of figures. Also, 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 shift allowed the artist to incorporate additional figures, such as the girl and the dog in the present work, and to present and explore the developmental and emotional variance between infant, young girl and woman. "Her figure compositions discover both the tension in, and the pleasure of, interactions between children and adults who are emotionally bonded, while being at radically different moments of psychological development and life-cycle." (Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Life, p. 16)
Children Playing with a Dog manifests the stylistic maturity and compositional complexity of Cassatt's later works. The inclusion of the window, which appears in only a few of the artist's works, including Young Mother Sewing (1902, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Young Mother and Two Children (1905, White House Collection, Washington, D.C., fig.4), introduces a landscape element, creates a more variegated background and allows for a spatial depth that is absent in the compressed spaces of her earlier images. The sophisticated vista simultaneously opens the interior space and adds cohesion to the picture. The landscape through the window is presented with quick, loose painterly strokes of varying hues of blue, green, brown and orange, which echo the pattern in the mother's dress and tones in the baby's hair and complexion. Its presence also acts as an exterior foil, underscoring the intimacy of the private interior scene. Increasingly focused on complexity in her backgrounds, Cassatt also emphasizes the linear architectural elements such as the window sill and paneling.
The artist also demonstrates a greater interest in the texture and cut of materials in Children Playing with a Dog. The silk of the dresses, the lush velvet of the foot stool, the dog's bristly coat and the woolen blanket are expertly rendered and layered so that each texture acts as a foil to enhance the quality of the others. Masterful juxtapositions such as the short, thick strokes of the dog's coat contrasted with the smoothness of the ottoman, echo the relationship of the textured blanket against the lower portion of the mother's dress. Cassatt also uses a thick build-up of short delicate strokes of various colors in the baby's body and female figures' faces to capture their creamy and luminescent texture.
The artist pays particular attention to the depiction of the elaborate green and rose-colored gowns of the mother and young girl, the lower portions of which are composed of long, vertical brushstrokes while the girl's sleeve and upper portion of the woman's dress are constructed with short, thick, diagonal strokes. She adeptly captures the patterning in the woman's dress by layering short quick strokes of varying greens, whites and blues over longer smoother strokes. The impasto that is used in the bow is also a fine detail. The lines of the dresses extend downward in contrast to earlier works in which the shoulders are emphasized with dynamic, multi-directional lines. "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." (Mary Cassatt, p. 125)
After 1900, Cassatt began to use the same models repeatedly and the particular group of models seen in Children Playing with a Dog appears to have held a distinct significance for the artist. The trio reappears in several of her works of the period, as seen in Mother and Two Children (1906, Private collection, fig. 5) and Mother Looking Down, Embracing both of Her Children (1908, White House, Washington, D.C.). The artist preferred to use as models children from Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, the village near her country home, Beaufresne, fifty miles northwest of Paris. In 1901 she began to frequently employ Sara, the young golden-haired girl pictured in the present painting, who according to Adelyn Breeskin, was a granddaughter of one of the former presidents of the French Republic, Emile Loubet. (Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 150) The sweetness of Sara's face, the ethereality of her features, and her reportedly good-natured demeanor evidently rendered her a favored model for Cassatt during these years and she was the subject of many of Cassatt's works from the period including both single and group portraits. Jeanne, who poses as the mother, was also a favorite of Cassatt's. While it is important to stress that the artist's works of this period are compositions rather than 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 )
During this period Cassatt also took great care in deliberately assembling her compositions: "She selected her models and set up situations in her studio that she could examine and paint a representation, a mise en toile, a composition in the old academic sense, and not just a casually observed or spontaneously formed scene." (Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women, p. 16) Children Playing with a Dog is composed of strong diagonals, not only in the figures' gazes, but also in the line from Jeanne's shoulder to Sara's head, from Sara's arm to her dog and that of the blue baby blanket. The pyramidal construction of the figures in Children Playing with a Dog simultaneously acknowledges a classical arrangement, employed by Old Master painters, and forms a compact, unified group that expresses the close relationship between mother and children. The simplified composition of the present work gives prominence and monumentality to the figures. One of the mother's hands supports the infant's chest in a protective, maternal grasp, while the other is at his side, the fingers of which he grips for stability and comfort.
The young girl imitates her mother's affectionate hold of the infant in her gentle, caring embrace of the dog. The affected maturity in her loving gaze, which mimics her mother's, underscored by the repetition in their positions, captures the concept of "playing mother." It is simultaneously endearing and a vehicle for social commentary. "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." (Mary Cassatt, p. 125) This alludes to women's influence in the domestic realm and, as Nancy Mowll Mathews suggests in regards to the frequent use of mirrors and grooming motifs in the later works, "can be read as suggesting women's responsibility for the improvement of their children and, by implication, for the improvement of society itself. Cassatt's firm conviction, often articulated, that women were the primary civilizing force in society and that they could have this broader impact only if they were given a voice inspired her strong support of the American women's suffrage movement." (Mary Cassatt, p. 125)
The stylistic maturity of Cassatt's later works, of which Children Playing with a Dog is a superlative example, met with great acclaim from critics, dealers, collectors and students on both sides of the Atlantic. The artist's broad international appeal during this period was a testament to the fact that, "Although she worked throughout her entire career in France, her art is indeed expressive of the vitality which characterized the sturdy American temperament of her own epoch. She fused these thoroughly native qualities with a deep appreciation and thorough knowledge of the painting tradition of France, significantly enriching her life and art." (A.D. Breeskin in The Knoedler Galleries, The Paintings of Mary Cassatt, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1966, n.p.)
In masterworks such as Children Playing with a Dog, Cassatt sought to capture, celebrate and elevate the intimate, hidden scenes of women's domestic life. Her sophisticated approach to the subject of motherhood was praised, and distinguished her from her contemporaries, "She saw herself as a standard-bearer for the new freedom in art that had been won by the Impressionists, and was seen that way by others." (Mary Cassatt: A Life, p. 267) Cassatt's ability to convey the inimitable tenderness and sensuality often present in a mother's interaction with her children while creating paintings that are simultaneously modern and traditional instills masterworks such as Children Playing with a Dog with a timeless appeal.
This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.