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Mary Cassatt Comes to the Amon Carter At Last

by Jerome Weeks 21 Oct 2011 7:19 AM

The rare painting by the only American impressionist completes the Amon Carter’s “American expatriates in Europe” collection.


When I interviewed new Amon Carter director Andrew Walker in July, he spoke about his fascination with the small circle of American expatriate painters of the 19th century — like James MacNeil Whistler and John  Singer Sargent. Turns out, the only one not represented in the Carter, he said, was Mary Cassatt, the only American officially included as a member of the Impressionists.

Now she’s coming to Fort Worth. The Carter has acquired Woman Standing, Holding a Fan (1878-79), a rare, early Cassatt: It’s only one of two she created entirely in distemper (a kind of paint usually made from chalk or lime). Another interesting detail about the painting is its provenance: It ‘disappeared’ for years, until it was found in 1996, having spent much of the time in a private French collection.

The purchase was made through Wildenstein & Company gallery in New York, and one source estimates the price was $3 to $6 million.

The full release follows:

FORT WORTH, Texas—To mark its 50th Anniversary, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art announces that it has acquired an important painting by Mary Cassatt, Woman Standing, Holding a Fan, created in 1878–79. The work is one of only two known canvases painted by the artist almost entirely in the medium of distemper and represents a key moment in her transformation into an Impressionist.

“A great Cassatt painting has eluded us until now,” says Andrew Walker, director of the Amon Carter. “With her contemporaries John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, Cassatt was one of the most influential American artists living and working abroad in the 19th century; so naturally, we are thrilled to have one of her paintings in our collection. It is particularly rewarding that the work is unique in scale and breathtaking in its execution.”

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) created the painting during a period of intense collaboration with French artist Edgar Degas (1834–1917) who invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists at the group’s fourth exhibition in 1879. Cassatt was the only American in the group, and with Marie Bracquemond (1841–1916) and Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), she became known as one of the “trois grandes dames” of Impressionism. In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d’honneur in 1904.

While she is known primarily for portraiture, Cassatt explored radical new styles and techniques to represent the modern world while working with Degas. Both artists were fascinated with natural and artificial illumination, along with the profound foreshortening and cropping of silhouetted figures. They also shared an interest in matte surfaces and the sketchy use of dry, chalky pigments, such as pastel and distemper, a medium in which pigments are mixed with water and glue.

“Cassatt’s alliance with Degas, grounded in mutual admiration, produced some of the most closely linked and innovative art of the late 19th century,” says Rebecca Lawton, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter. “Woman Standing is a perfect example of this. Cassatt, like many of her contemporaries, was fascinated by Japanese art. She devised compositional strategies by studying Japanese prints, learning how to depict character through posture and gesture and how to evoke an entire world using an economy of means.

“Her palette in this work is especially striking with the wonderfully harmonious arrangement of subtle tones for the rug contrasted with the almost acid-green accents in the dress. You get an immediate and palpable sense of the artist’s hand by examining the rapid brushwork. You see Cassatt experimenting with distemper, a challenging, quick-drying, hard-to-maneuver medium.”

Not only is the painting important to the study of American art, but it also opens avenues for conservation research, according to Claire Barry, director of conservation.

“The work reveals Cassatt’s innovative spirit as a painter,” says Barry. “It’s compelling to delve into her rare use of distemper. Research into her work with this aqueous medium, by itself or in combination with other chalky mediums, such as pastel on canvas, is of great interest to conservators. It promises to reveal fascinating new insights into the diversity of Cassatt’s painting techniques.”

There are intriguing elements of mystery surrounding Woman Standing. Its first known owner was the celebrated art dealer and collector Ambroise Vollard. After leaving Vollard’s hands, the painting remained unknown to scholars until 1996, when it surfaced on the art market after residing for many years in a private French collection. Since then, the painting has been exhibited and published three times, but its place within Cassatt’s career and studio practice is not thoroughly understood. Its panel-like format suggests that it may have been conceived as a decorative scheme and thus belongs to a broader program of decorative ideas that were being discussed by the Impressionists in the late 1870s.

“I’ve been fascinated by this painting since it appeared in the 1998 Cassatt retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago,” says Walker, who worked on the exhibition. “When I became director of the Amon Carter earlier this year, it was quite clear to me that this was the right painting to acquire in commemoration of the museum’s 50th Anniversary and to honor board president Ruth Carter Stevenson who has long admired Cassatt’s work.”

Woman Standing, Holding a Fan is currently on view in the second-floor paintings and sculpture galleries.

About Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Born in Pittsburgh into an old, prosperous Pennsylvania family, Mary Cassatt received her primary artistic education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which she entered in 1860. When she was 22, Cassatt went abroad, studying in Paris with renowned French masters that included Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) and Thomas Couture (1815–1879); by the mid-1870s she had settled in France permanently. Her friendships with Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) coincided with a transition in her work toward the dynamic brushwork and high-keyed colors of Impressionism.

Cassatt devoted herself to portraiture—most frequently depicting women and children who were family and friends. The French Impressionists invited her to participate in their 1879 exhibition; thereafter, she moved comfortably within their circle, actively exhibiting and selling her paintings, pastels and prints. Around this time she also began producing etchings and drypoints, which would ultimately number more than 200. The Amon Carter also houses four of Cassatt’s prints.

Although the vigorous modernist movement emerged well before her death, Cassatt never approved of abstract art, which lacked the finish and careful methodology that she herself practiced. Failing eyesight plagued her in her later years, and she died in France at age 82.