Art Thoughts, Week 17 -- Cassatt & Intimacy

Woman with Nude Boy at Her Left, Mary Cassatt (American, active in France, 1844—1926), c. 1905—1908, watercolor on paper, BF 323.

A watercolor study is a bit like a gut reaction. In a slightly scandalous continuum, they are more than a sketch, and less than an oil painting. The combination of responsive paper and willing paint creates an environment of spontaneity, and a sometimes impetuous result. Yet, as unpredictable as it can be, watercolor is also akin to the phrase sometimes heard at grade-school testing time: go with your first answer; it’s probably the one closest to being right. In other words, the immediacy of our initial synapses are often more reliable before they become increasingly weighted down with context.

Mary Cassatt’s Woman with Nude Boy at Her Left has an instantly affecting and painterly immediacy to it. The Barnes collection has two Cassatt watercolors of almost identical subjects, yet this one is the truer of the two – and the less worked, as it turns out.

There is obvious warmth between mother and child (the familiar gaze and touch seem to suggest that relationship, regardless of the innocuous title). The leaning boy is drawn in by the large, rose-colored V of the mother’s robe neckline. He is further enveloped in an opposing warm V of her skirted legs, nestling him carefully. And too, she is gently holding him there with her right arm. Thus there is a subtle mix of two elements: an encouraging-into-intimacy, and a holding-inside-of-intimacy. Her legs provide the nest of that intimacy, and her arm the adoring restraint of love. This is a decidedly pacific and nurturing take on intimacy. That is, a welcoming space is provided, and then an extremely gentle hand of guidance and restraint is used, saying, in effect, I want you here; and you need to be here. This intimacy model is opposed to the one which would turn the tables, restraining someone in a grip of intimacy, and then attempting to nurture. This of course, is necessary in discipline, and may be found in some lovemaking. Here, however, there is no overt discipline and the painting itself is not Oedipal in the least. There is only a warm, cursory instant between mother and child.

Cassatt’s painting method accentuates this intimate feel. Many thin brush lines of dark lilac and salmon puddle around the figures’ limbs, and caress them into form; the positive shapes becoming almost a negative space, materially speaking. That is, there is less paint on the figures than there is around them. This creates a sort of paint nest for the growth of bodily form inside it, conveying a delicate and spontaneous feel to the paint surface; the forms feel almost carved out of the paper with paint. And those two qualities – delicacy and spontaneity – are certainly as equally important to mothering as they are to painting with watercolors.

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