Throughout her career, Mary Cassatt explored the subject of children with tenderness and poignancy. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Cassatt's reputation as a painter of mothers and children had been crystallized and the demand for her works was at its peak. Executed in 1901, Sara Seated, Leaning on her Left Hand typifies her ambitious style at this juncture in her career.
After 1890, Cassatt preferred to work with slightly older children, such as the present model Sara. She remarked in 1909: "it is not worthwhile to waste one's time over little children under three who are spoiled and absolutely refuse to allow themselves to be amused and are very cross, like most spoiled children." (A.D. Breeskin, Mary Cassatt, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors Drawings, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 17) Emphasizing historical perspective, Nancy M. Mathews further remarks: "The nineteenth century has been called 'the century of the child', but in the early twentieth century the subject may have been given even more attention. 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 psychology, absorbed by Cassatt in her wide reading of sociological, psychological and parapsychological literature." (Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 125) In the present work, Sara sits patiently and somewhat disinterested, leaning on her left side. Donned with an oversized bonnet with layers of ribbon and a pink satin frock, Sara who is probably five or six years of age assumes the persona of a little adult.
In addition to working with the slightly older model Sara, Cassatt employs in the present work several signature elements that recur in her works throughout her career. Cassatt had in her repertoire of accessories a variety of oversized hats and bonnets of varying colors decorated with either ribbons or flowers. Of the artist's work after 1900, Nancy M. Mathews observes: "Cassatt portrayed her models wearing large elaborate hats. This was a new practice for Cassatt, and one that may have been prompted by a new fashion. Aware of the design possibilities of a small face and a large hat, Cassatt seldom thereafter depicted a young girl hatless." (Mary Cassatt, p. 128)
During this period in her career, Cassatt slightly altered the handling of costume. Nancy M. Mathews comments: "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 stretched different aspects of costume, but usually their specific texture and pattern were less important to her than the effects the silhouette and cut, which were means of articulating the body underneath. In the late period Cassatt's handling of costume is more obvious..." (Mary Cassatt, p. 125)
In Sara Seated, Leaning on her Left Hand, Cassatt, through deft handling of the brush, creates various light-affected textures. By using liquid strokes to create the underside of the brim, the bonnet stands in textural contrast to Sara's dress and hair, which are both light infused through the use of dashing, short brushstrokes. This same velvety quality apparent in the bonnet is reflected in Sara's flawless pink skin. Cassatt establishes a wonderful rhythmic pattern of texture throughout the image which in turn is ingeniously contained within an undulating silhouette composed of soft, rounded forms. Cassatt's techniques therefore emphasize not only the superficial girlish qualities of Sara, but more importantly her innocence and universal charm.
The qualities that were coveted by Cassatt's patrons in works such as Sara Seated, Leaning on her Left Hand are today revered as elements exhibited in her finest works. As Nancy M. Mathews comments: "Of all Cassatt's work, these images of children have the greatest popular appeal. They combine a number of 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." (Mary Cassatt, p. 127)
This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyne Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.