“I have had a joy from which no one can rob me – I have been able to touch some people with my art.” – Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt is certainly best known and instantly recognized for her honest and heartwarming portrayals of mothers and children. In the same way as other Impressionists explored the subject of modern bohemian life in Paris (think about Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party or Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day), Cassatt sought to capture a moment in time within her own quite intimate social environment. Cassatt generally found her models within her close circle of friends and family. Women reading or drinking tea, mothers washing, dressing, breastfeeding or swaddling their babies, and children playing were part of Cassatt’s everyday world and her enduring models.
To say that artistic career was quite an unusual endeavor for an upper-class woman at the end of the 19th century in France is an understatement. L’École des Beaux-Arts, the main art school of Paris, did not accept female students at the time when Cassatt arrived in Europe from her native Pennsylvania. It was through her friendship with Edgar Degas that Mary Cassatt came into contact and started exhibiting with the Impressionists. She was the only American and one of only three women officially associated with this group of artists.
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, painted for the inclusion in the 1878 International Exhibition in Paris, has often been cited as an example of Edgar Degas’s influence on Cassatt. The girl herself was the daughter of a friend of Degas’s. Relaxed, unposed treatment of the model, asymmetrical composition, loose brushwork, the way the picture is cropped and finally, privacy of the moment that we can often find in Degas’ depictions of ballerinas – the similarities in their work are striking. But where Degas’s ballerinas are placed within their typical environment, the little girl, swamped by the abundance of massive furniture with its vibrant blue upholstery, seems out of place. The feeling Cassatt aimed to depict here was this alienation and tiresomeness of a child who is constrained within an adult world.
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