Thinking about Cassatt

I was thinking about Mary Cassatt.

Actually, I was thinking about myself, and this past year. It seems to me that something happened last summer. Something changed or began to change. And I started to see both myself and the world differently. There are a number of things that can do that to you. A work of art can. A place can. A person can. Seeing yourself through the eyes of a person who sees you differently than you see yourself: that can change you.

This year, I’ve been thinking of myself differently, not just as a person but also as a writer. And I’ve been changing both as a person and a writer. I’ve believed in myself more, I’ve dared more in my work. I’m writing things I don’t think I would have written before. It’s as though since last summer, I’ve become more myself, more the person I was supposed to be all along.

I’m taking myself more seriously.

The reason I was thinking about Mary Cassatt is that often, I use other art forms to help me think about writing. So I’ll use dance to think about writing, or I’ll use music or visual art. And what Cassatt did was combine innovative techniques, taken from the Impressionists and particularly from her mentor Edgar Degas, with subject matter that was not itself particularly innovative. In a way, she combined Impressionism with certain aspects of Victorian genre painting. The mother and child paintings, for example. Like this one:

So often when we think of experimental art, nowadays, we think of art that is not particularly pleasant to look at. Cassatt created an art that was aesthetically pleasing, that actually created a sense of comfort and stability, but that was nevertheless challenging because it did not idealize, the way Victorian genre painting did. Her mothers and children were particular mothers and children.

What I like about the painting above is the richness of color. She had that glorious color sense that makes walking into a room of Impressionist paintings like walking into a garden. In the Museum of Fine Arts, there is just such a room, and when you walk into it, you feel free. You think, yes, I can breathe here.

You can see that color sense in the yellows and violets in the painting above. They remind me of France. But I also like the girl’s plaintiveness, which is not the plaintiveness of children in Victorian genre paintings. This child looks as though she has lost something specific.  As though she is actually thinking about it.  Not as though she is a representation of loss in the abstract.

In the last two pictures, the painting above and the print below, you can see how she adapted techniques from Japanese prints. They are so flat, comparatively. I like the blues and yellows, so vibrant. There is a crucial combination in these pictures that I want to think about: the aesthetic pleasure they provide, which creates that comfort I described, and yet the challenge they present. They ask you, the viewer, to find aesthetic pleasure in a different way. We can tell they presented a challenge at the time: Cassatt’s paintings were repeatedly rejected at the Salon.

Some of the writers I love from that time period, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, were doing the same thing. Even James Joyce was. They were creating work that provided aesthetic pleasure and yet presented a challenge. I get a certain feeling from reading them, the same feeling I get from walking into the Impressionist room at the MFA. A feeling of lightness, airiness, and yet strength. Unity and structure, yet freedom.

Honestly, the writing I’ve been doing recently isn’t particularly challenging in that way. I think I’ve been focusing on beauty and aesthetic pleasure, on providing those. I want to be able to write a prose that is filled with light, the way Woolf’s is. But I also want it, or at least some of it, to go to an edge. Not in the way modern art often does, but in the way Cassatt did.

How difficult it is to describe all this! And it’s the last thing I can think about, right now. But since last summer, I’ve been feeling more and more as though I’m moving toward something, in myself, in my work. Something that is the self I’m meant to be. And I want that movement to continue.

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2 Responses to Thinking about Cassatt

  1. Ms. says:

    Now I Become Myself
    by May Sarton
    Now I become myself. It’s taken
    Time, many years and places;
    I have been dissolved and shaken,
    Worn other people’s faces,
    Run madly, as if Time were there,
    Terribly old, crying a warning,
    “Hurry, you will be dead before–”
    (What? Before you reach the morning?
    Or the end of the poem is clear?
    Or love safe in the walled city?)
    Now to stand still, to be here,
    Feel my own weight and density!
    The black shadow on the paper
    Is my hand; the shadow of a word
    As thought shapes the shaper
    Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
    All fuses now, falls into place
    From wish to action, word to silence,
    My work, my love, my time, my face
    Gathered into one intense
    Gesture of growing like a plant.
    As slowly as the ripening fruit
    Fertile, detached, and always spent,
    Falls but does not exhaust the root,
    So all the poem is, can give,
    Grows in me to become the song,
    Made so and rooted by love.
    Now there is time and Time is young.
    O, in this single hour I live
    All of myself and do not move.
    I, the pursued, who madly ran,
    Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

    from Collected Poems 1930-1993
    © W.W. Norton, 1993

  2. Nivair says:

    Thanks for this post. I love Mary Cassatt (and Virginia Woolf! SO MUCH!) and reading your thoughts here is fascinating.

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