MARY CASSATT (1844–1926)
Sara in a Bonnet With a Plum Hanging Down at Left (No. 2), about 1906–07
Pastel on paper, 17 x 15 in.
Signed (at lower right): Mary Cassatt
RECORDED: Adelyn Dohme Breeskin, Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolors, and Drawings (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970), p. 152 no. 359
EXHIBITED: National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., February 24–April 30, 1978, Mary Cassatt: Pastels and Color Prints, no. 28
EX COLL: [Ambroise Vollard, Paris]; [Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York, 1955]; to private collection, New Canaan, Connecticut, by 1965, and by descent until the present
In addition to creating easel paintings, prints, and aquatints, Cassatt executed many pastels, a medium lauded for its portability, wide range of hues, and soft, tactile nature, which the Impressionists considered to be just as important as oil. Cassatt may have explored the aesthetic potential of pastel during her formative years in Philadelphia, and she was certainly aware of Degas’s penchant for pastel as early as 1873, when she convinced her friend, Louisine Waldron Elder (later, Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer), to buy one for her collection. By the late 1870s, Cassatt was using the medium on a regular basis, creating bold, firmly rendered pastels until about 1900, when her handling became more vigorous and her formats smaller in scale.
Cassatt, who never married or had children of her own, conceived her youthful subjects as poised, self-possessed individuals, an aspect of her approach that is apparent in Sara in a Bonnet With a Plum Hanging Down at Left (No. 2). This example is one of a number of informal portraits Cassatt made of this particular little girl, which typically show her wearing an oversize hat, one of the artist’s favorite accessories. (Little blonde-haired Sara was a granddaughter of Émile François Loubet, who served as France’s president from 1899 to 1906. The artist may have encountered Sara in the village of Mesnil-Théribus, near her summer chateau in Beaufresne, northwest of Paris.)
In this intimate head-and-shoulders portrait, Cassatt responds to the versatility of pastel––a medium that allowed the artist to combine elements of painting and drawing––by alternating her technique throughout the composition. The sitter’s costume is suggested by means of loose, sketchy strokes, while Sara’s face is rendered with a highly controlled touch that captures her fetching attributes, such as her full cheeks and cupid-bow lips, as well as her aloof demeanor as she directs her gaze away from the viewer. The artist’s varied palette––wherein cool blues and greens are balanced and offset by warm yellows and blush tones––is very much in keeping with her feminine subject and contribute to the work’s charm. That Sara in a Bonnet With a Plum Hanging Down at Left (No. 2) was admired during its day is evidenced by the fact that counterproofs of it were made by the enterprising young dealer Ambrose Vollard, an ardent fan of graphic art who greatly admired the fluent handling of Cassatt’s post-1900 pastels.