A COMPARISON OF IMPRESSIONIST OR GENRE ART IN THE UNITED STATES DURING THE MID 19TH CENTURY. AN EXPLORATION OF THE ART OF MARY CASSATT (1844-1926) AND JOHN SINGER SARGENT(1856-1925) PART 1.

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In this post I am going to consider the art of the Impressionist Mary Cassatt and the Genre painting of John Singer Sargent. Cassatt was part of the French Impressionist circle during this time. She is one of the few American artists who along with Berthe Morisot are considered the most talented woman artists during the period of French Impressionism. Cassatt spent most of her time in France and in Europe . Sargent spent time in England and on the continent , he could call amongst his friends James abbot Mcneil Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The Flame publishing series on American art comments on Cassatt’s de’oeuvre .

” Although she mostly exhibited in Paris during the 1870’s and 1880’s her works were eagerly collected in the United states and in this way Cassatt was largely responsible for bringing Impressionism to America”. [1].

” Her keen eye for modern artistic developments can clearly be seen in the Boating Party- painted in the south of France. the image shows a woman with a young child taking a leisurely boat trip”. [2].

In the letter Cassatt shows that she was aware of Japanese prints ‘Japonism’ was all the range of many Impressionists and Cassatt was no exception. In many ways it shows the Impressionists copying the art of the much superior drawing techniques of the Japanese masters.

” In the Letter she was also fascinated by the many ranges of women depicted in ordinary everyday circumstances particularly those produces by the 18th century artist Kitagawa Utamoro”. [3].

” Cassatt’s response to the Exhibition was to produce a series of her own prints adopting both the subject and style of Utamoro’s work”.[4].

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John Singer Sargent was a different artists. you could not put him in the Impressionist category. He was a great portraitist and Genre painter. The American art series of Flame Publishing shows in his great talent in his portrait of Mrs Fiske Warren of 1902. This was painted when Sargeant was residing in England.

” Sargent has here placed his sitter in a throne-like renaissance chair looking directly towards the viewer. Mrs Warren’s daughter rests her face affectionately on her mother’s shoulders”. [5].

“Here Sargent has captured the mood of the sitters with great psychological intensity – who appear as mere adornments within the highly decorated interior”. [6].

Robert Atkins in his Book Art Spoke considers the importance of Mary Cassatt to French Impressionist art.

” Such artists as Mary Cassatt emulated the prints vivid un modulated colour, emphatic outlines foreshortened and aerial perspective asymmetrical and truncated compositions”. [7].

Ann Lee Morgan the very knowledgeable art Historian recognises the importance of Mary Cassatt in the following commentary.

” Painter and printmaker admired especially for images of women , often with their children , she counteracted this potentially sentimental subject with rigorous design and expression of introspective gravity”. [8].

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Continuing her commentary Morgan identifies how close Cassatt was to Edgar Degas. In fact at the Paris Exhibition she was the only woman artist. This was due to her extreme wealth and status. She was born into a very American wealthy family. There were very few working class or proletarian women  artists who had the opportunity to display their work. The exception would be artists later in the century like Suzanne Valadon.

” She ranked as the only American artist to exhibit in the Impressionist shows, like her mentor degas she concentrated on figural representations of Modern Life”. [9].

” Her family and friends often provided subjects but she also pursued the Impressionist’s interest in fashionable leisure and entertainment”. [10].

This was the period of the Flaneur , the middle class dandy with plenty of money who could waist his time in parks and amongst other Middle class wasters. Edouard Manet was particularly good at representing this type of picture for example the Dejeuner de’herbe.

” In the late 1880’s she moved towards tighter more restrained paint surface and more roundly proportional figures stabilised by strongly drawn contours”. [11].

” In the Girls bath-the flattened perspective  of this work with its vantage point above the figures along with the patterned woman’s striped dress and the elegant shape of the bowl indicate Cassatt’s debt to the ‘Japonise’ that stimulated Impressionist and others of the period” .[12].

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Ann Lee Morgan in her monumental excellent book on American art goes into more detail about The Letter by Mary Cassatt.

” In the letter (1890-1) a woman of vaguely Asian (japonese) appearance holds an envelope to her mouth as she sits before a desk -seen from slightly above the intriguing asymmetrically balanced composition combines such flat geometric shapes as the envelope the letter and the desktop with organically patterned wallpaper”. [13].

  registered fresh visual experience in an audaciously free and colouristic style related to contemporary impressionism”.[14].

Commenting on ‘Carnation Lily  Lily rose’ which is one of my favourite Sargent paintings its innocence shown brilliantly and the colours his magnificent use of perspective and ideal figurative work is to me outstanding . Morgan agrees with my summation.

” Carnation Lily Lily rose’ like most of the artists major works although fresh and informal it represents a highly pre mediated performance extensively  reworked during two sessions”. [15].

Morgan compares Sargent with Van Dyke  , Gainsborough and Reynolds , that is praise indeed and I would agree with her , although in a later period I am sure Sargent should join the ranks of the most talented portraitists in the 18th century.

” In his hands the painterly tradition of Van Dyke, Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds received a fresh infusion of vitality and freedom and up to date glamour. The compelling originality of many individual likenesses their striking evocations of personality demonstrate the artists serious intention”.[16].

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Morgan continues to show how Sargent became committed to Public Art.

” Beginning in 1890 Sargent took on challenges of an entirely new sort responding to the enthusiasm  for murals characteristic of the American Renaissance he subsequently devoted much energy to epic public art”. [17].

Matthew Baigell makes some useful historical comments on Mary Cassatt’s work.

” Mary Cassatt another  expatriate was also an adventurous artist , she responded more to innovations in colour , harmonies and compositional arrangements than to self-conscious poetic moods and crepuscular tonal harmonies”. [18].

” Her keen sensitivity to the new art (Impressionism) became evident in the 1870’s. among Americans, not even Whistler understood so completely the innovative emphasis given to picture surface itself. the activation of the entire surface through bright colour and rich Texture”. [19].

Baigell shows in the end something that Clement Greenberg established in his monographs on Modernism. He states that it was Edouard Manet and the use of using a flat palette , taking consideration of surface impressions using the light, colour and perspective and figural arrangements that established Manet as the first Modernist so asserts Greenberg. In fact Cassatt like the others particularly Renoir and Degas was following in that tradition.

” Cassatt did not pursue this type of structural organisation much further but in succeeding years revealed her admiration for Renoir by concentrating on colour harmonies and exquisite brushwork”. [20].

This completes my first study of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. In part 2 I will further explore their later developments.

FOOTNOTES

  1. AMERICAN ART FLAME PUBLISHING PG.24
  2. DITTO.G.24
  3. DITTO.PG.230
  4. DITTO.PG.230
  5. DITTO. PG.306
  6. DITTO. PG.306
  7. ART SPOKE ART MOVEMENTS FROM 1844-1948 ROBERT ATKINS.PG.126-7
  8. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS ANN LEE MORGAN PG.77
  9. DITTO. PG.77-8
  10. DITTO.PG.78
  11. DITTO.PG.78
  12. DITTO.PG.78
  13. DITTO.PG.78
  14. DITTO.PG.430
  15. DITTO.PG.431
  16. DITTO.PG. 431
  17. DITTO. PG.432
  18. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE. MATTHEW BAIGELL. PG.145
  19. DITTO. PG. 145
  20. DITTO. PG.145

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2 thoughts on “A COMPARISON OF IMPRESSIONIST OR GENRE ART IN THE UNITED STATES DURING THE MID 19TH CENTURY. AN EXPLORATION OF THE ART OF MARY CASSATT (1844-1926) AND JOHN SINGER SARGENT(1856-1925) PART 1.”

    1. Thanks Mary , much appreciated for your comments there is in fact more of American art than you would realise I think a lot of these American artists have been overlooked in favour of European artists which is a pity. Laurencexx

      Liked by 1 person

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