Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), , Mother Combing Sara's Hair (No. 2)
Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), , Mother Combing Sara's Hair (No. 2)
Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926)
Mother Combing Sara's Hair (No. 2)
Signed in reverse bottom right, pastel counterproof on Japan paper laid down to board
Sheet size: 18 1/4 x 23 7/8 in. (46.4 x 60.6cm)
Executed circa 1905-1915.
Acquired directly from the above as part of her "Studio Collection."
Ambroise Vollard, Paris.
Acquired from the Estate of the above.
Henri M. Petiet, Paris.
Private European Collection.
Adelson Galleries, New York, New York.
MK Fine Art Inc., Palm Beach, Florida.
Acquired directly from the above.
Private Collection, Florida.
"Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt," Adelson Galleries, New York, New York, November 1, 2004-January 14, 2005.
Adelyn Dohme Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors, and Drawings, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1970, no. 348 (pastel from which our counterproof is made).
Warren Adelson, et. al., Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt, Adelson Galleries, New York, 2004, no. 1, p. 37 (illustrated).
In Mother Combing Sara's Hair (No. 2), Cassatt captures a special moment of intimacy between a young girl and her mother. One of the artist's most celebrated motifs-which she explored through the pastel medium in 1879 (Mother Combing Child's Hair, Brooklyn Museum) and in 1901 (Mother Combing Sara's Hair No. 1, Private Collection)-the work conveys a sense of serenity and coziness. As a counterproof, it also offers a new insight into Cassatt's modern creative process in the 1900s, as exemplified by the broader, somehow simplified forms of the composition and its overall tonal colors.
A pastel counterproof is made by placing a dampened sheet of blank paper on top of a preexisting pastel, and applying pressure on it, either by rubbing it or by running the joined papers through a printing press, so as to transfer some of the pastel's surface powder onto the new sheet. As Jay E. Cantor puts it, "the technique can be remarkably successful in creating a second work, which is in mirror image and is somewhat softer looking." The process itself dates back to the 18th century, a time when artists such as Rosalba Carriera, Maurice Quentin De la Tour and Jean-Baptiste Perronneau made a triumphant use of the pastel, especially through portraiture. In the 19th century, the freshness of the pastel still appealed to many artists, but the counterproof process offered them a new range of possibilities. Through the delicate, flattened surfaces and subtle colors they obtained, they were able to suggest an ethereal mood, into which many Symbolists were looking to immerse themselves and were trying to recreate.
Cassatt was introduced to the art of the counterproof by her friend and mentor, Edgar Degas, who had already produced a great number of counterproofs of his charcoal drawings and pastels. Although Cassatt always had a certain taste for experimentation in her work, it was Degas who repeatedly pushed her limits; in 1880 for example, she joined the artist in a project of making original prints, which soon became her medium of choice. Years later, Cassatt recalled the decisive influence of Degas on her work, "I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."
Until the early 2000s, fewer than twenty pastels by Cassatt were known to have counterproofs. The unexpected rediscovery of nearly one hundred of her counterproofs in 2005 deeply reshaped our perception of her working method. Today, more than one hundred thirty impressions have been catalogued, including some counterproofs made after pastels that are still unrecorded to this date. Cassatt's motivations behind the making of counterproofs remain unclear. Scholars suggest that Ambroise Vollard, in whose collection the counterproofs were all recently rediscovered, was the one encouraging their production as a preparatory step toward a series of planned lithographs. Although there is no concrete evidence to support this theory, Vollard may very well have dictated Cassatt's counterproofs, just as he advised Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Édouard Vuillard to work in multiple images and explore printmaking at the same time. Either way, whatever the artist and her dealer had in mind for them, the counterproofs became a way for Cassatt to make her art available to a broader audience. They also offered her the occasion to create a completely different and original work from an already existing model.
The present work fits within the numerous portraits of blonde, angelic girls that Mary Cassatt repeatedly produced in the early years of the twentieth century. After centering her compositions around a dark-haired girl with intriguing black eyes called Margot, Cassatt met with Sara, who lived near her Beaufresne Estate in Oise. Her golden hair, fine features, and overall good nature quickly caught the artist's attention, and she became her favored model during these years. Unlike Margot whom Cassatt mostly depicted alone, the artist chose to portray Sara either with small dogs or in the company of an adult woman, as shown here.
In Mother Combing Sara's Hair (No. 2), Cassatt depicts young Sara being tenderly groomed by her mother, whose face is completely obscured, her back turned to the viewer. The way Sara's intense blue eyes gaze at her mother suggest the deep connection between the sitters and their respective love for each other. In capturing this connection, Cassatt transposes into a modern language, into a contemporary setting, the traditional imagery of the Madonna and Child, which she de-spiritualizes in order to solely glorify the strength of the mother-child bond. Cassatt here places the two figures within an intimate domestic setting, directly inspired by 17th century Dutch and Flemish pictures of mothers and daughters in their interiors. The grooming aspect of the composition is also a clear reference to this art of the past, which Cassatt revered and had already revived through her pastels of children with pet birds, or little girls wearing fanciful hats and ribbons. Despite the iconographic reference, the work presents a modern aspect visible through the flat blocks of bright color on the figures and the abstract background. Cassatt has captured the essence of the scene (Sara's luminous presence, the mother's softness, the interior's warmth) with just a few broad planes which add up in layers of vibrating hues, thus expressing the vitality of Cassatt's creative process. Specifically, the counterproof adds an overall layer of transparency to the scene, and brilliantly transcribes the tenderness of the moment in a ghostly, almost otherworldly fashion. Like Odilon Redon, who channeled emotions through colors and shapes, Cassatt here invites her viewer to absorb every detail of the counterproof in order to be carried away in a quiet, soothing reverie.
The present work will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt in the section dealing with the artist's pastel counterproofs.