Mary Cassatt was exceptional in many ways; one of the few successful female artists of the era she was also the only American member of the French Impressionists. From a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Cassatt first came to Paris in 1865 to studying painting – despite her father’s disapproval; he once said he would rather see her dead than an artist –and ended up making Paris her home for much of her life. After mastering academic painting and exhibiting at the prestigious Paris Salon, she was drawn to the avant-garde trends of Impressionism and in 1879 was invited by her friend and mentor, Edgar Degas, to exhibit with the Impressionists (she would exhibit at four of their eight exhibitions, in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886). ‘I accepted with joy’, Cassatt told her biographer. ‘At last, I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognised who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art’.
But while she embraced the techniques and influences of Impressionism she developed her own unique artistic language that often explored themes rarely touched on by male artists: the contemporary lives of middle-class women. Her choice of subject (like her fellow Impressionist Berthe Morisot) was somewhat inescapable as, like the women she portrayed, Cassatt’s social life was limited. A middle class woman in late 19th-century Paris was chaperoned wherever she went in public, be it a park, theatre or shop, and she could not enter without serious social consequences the bars, musical halls and brothels which served as the subjects and inspiration for many male artists. Thus Cassatt, depicted the world she knew; recording with insight and originality, women like herself, writing letters, sewing, reading or engaging in other domestic or social activities. She took inspiration from Japanese art which offered fresh approaches to the depiction of women’s everyday lives and she became known for her intimate portrayal of mothers and their children, but also for individual portraits, such as this one of a young woman seated in a garden.
With broad, impressionistic brushstrokes Cassatt sets the girl in a richly coloured background defined by a diagonal path that gives the painting depth and structures the composition. The young woman seems to sit before it, an almost monumental figure enveloped in a frilly summer dress. But all attention is focused on her rosy cheeks, busy hands and expression of complete concentration; though one could imagine she is lost in a daydream, her fingers working all the while.
The clear, firm outline of her face and hands reflects Cassatt’s career-long attention to figure composition, an influence no doubt of her mentor Degas, who firmly believed art should be based on strong draughtsmanship and that women did not make the best artists: he famously said, ‘I cannot believe that a woman is able to draw equally as well’. Cassatt clearly made sure he was proven wrong, approaching every painting with discipline and technical rigour.
Painted sometime between 1880 and 1882 during a period when Cassatt and her visiting American family spent time at a rented house in Marly-le-Roi (a bucolic area close to Paris on a bend in the Seine), it could perhaps be a young relative in the garden. However, her identity is not recorded. The painting was shown with its present title at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
While Berthe Morisot and Cassatt were not close friends – a fact usually attributed to their very different personalities: self-contained and soft-spoken Morisot was the opposite of the tall, imperious and by all reports, loud, Cassatt – they nevertheless succeed in creating a uniquely female interpretation of what modern life looked and felt like, capturing a segment of late 19th-century life that otherwise may have gone unrecorded.
1880 Edward Burne-Jones: The Golden Stairs, London, Tate
1882 Max Liebermann: Bleaching Linen on the Grass, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
1882 Berthe Morisot: Garden at Bougival, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales