The following visual analysis is in response to four of Mary Cassatt’s paintings. You can find the paintings at the end of this page to see how the writer described the lines, composition, shapes, scale, and space of these images to make a larger argument about Cassatt’s work.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, [American artist Mary] Cassatt’s reputation has suffered because of the prejudice against her subject matter. Mother and children: what could be of lower prestige, more vulnerable to the charge of sentimentality. Yet if one looks at the work of Mary Cassatt, one sees how triumphantly she avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality because of the astringent rigor of her eye and craft. The Cassatt iconography dashes in an instant the notion of the comfortable, easily natural fit of the maternal embrace. Again and again in her work, the child’s posture embodies the ambivalence of his or her dependence. In The Family, the mother and child exist in positions of unease; the strong diagonals created by their postures of opposition give the pictures their tense strength, a strength that renders sentimental sweetness impossible. In Ellen Mary Cassatt in a White Coat and Girl in the Blue Arm Chair, the children seem imprisoned and dwarfed by the trappings of respectable life. The lines of Ellen’s coat, which create such a powerful framing device, entrap the round and living child. The sulky little girl in the armchair seems about to be swallowed up by the massive cylinders of drawing room furniture and the strong curves of emptiness that are the floor. In The Bath, the little girl has all the unformed charming awkwardness of a young child: the straight limbs, the loose stomach. But these are not [just adorable or angelic babies]. In this picture, the center of interest is not the relationship between the mother and the child but the strong vertical and diagonal stripes of the mother’s dress, whose opposition shape the picture with an insistence that is almost abstract.
from “Mary Cassatt” by Mary Gordon (1991)
Green – line, contour
Blue – composition
Pink – shape
Orange – scale
Gray – space (negative space in this instance)
Mary Cassatt’s Paintings
Mary Cassatt, an American artist born to an upper-middle class family, spent much of her adult life in Paris. The oil paintings here were made between 1878 and 1896.
The Family: “Mary Cassatt – The Family” by irinaraquel is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Girl in the Blue Armchair: “Mary Cassatt – Little Girl in a Blue Armchair ” by Gandalf’s Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Ellen Mary Cassatt in a White Coat: By Mary Cassatt – Mary Cassatt, Oils and Pastels, by E. John Bullard, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York in cooperation with the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1972, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38157450
The Bath: “Cassatt, The Child’s Bath” by profzucker is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
This resource from the Baruch College Writing Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You are free to share, adapt, transform, or otherwise use this material in any medium, with attribution.