The liberation of technique from academic practice proceeded on numerous fronts in the 19th century, but no trend affected painting more than the experiments of the French Impressionists. The movement to create an art that looked at modern life without imposing narrative content or rigorously measuring space evolved from the practice of landscape painters dubbed the Barbizon School (after the town in the forest of Fontainebleau where they often stayed). The Barbizon painters took their brushes and canvases out-of-doors to create intimate views of nature in the open air. Although many of their important works were completed in the studio, the concept of recording the changing effects of light and atmosphere was preserved in the final product. The Impressionists took this practice further by abandoning the tradition of working from darks to lights, instead allowing the white ground of the canvas to enhance the brightness of the image. These results are evident in Mary Cassatt’s Portrait of Simone in a Blue Bonnet, in which the white ground is clearly visible above and beneath the model’s head.
In the 1860s, during Cassatt’s first concentrated period of study in France, she copied paintings in the Louvre and was exposed, second-hand, to the protocols of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts while a student of academic realist Jean-Léon Gérôme (at that time, women could not enroll at the Ecole). On her return to Europe in 1871, she traveled in Italy and Spain and continued to study Old Master paintings. After settling in Paris she developed a style that combined direct, economical draftsmanship with fluid brushstrokes to capture fleeting moments of modern life. Her subjects included figures engaged in urban domestic activities: women in carriages, at the opera, taking tea with friends, or tending to children. Although her work displeased jurors at the official French-government Salon, it caught the attention of Edgar Degas, an artist she admired. She was the only American to participate in the groundbreaking Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s.
Cassatt’s female models were often members of her Paris household or neighbors from her country home nearby. She made numerous studies of a little girl named Simone, often posing her in colorful bonnets. In this unfinished portrait in RISD’s collection, Cassatt’s assured technique may be seen in the way she draws with her brush, capturing the child’s expression and subtly modeling her face. She uses a firm stroke to create the stiff brim of the bonnet, then sketches in Simone’s hair and costume with fluid strokes of paint. Quick, dark, scribbled brushstrokes surround Simone’s head and help to project her figure forward, but the areas of exposed white ground preserve the natural brightness of the canvas and register Cassatt’s desire to capture the overall light tonality that characterized French Impressionist painting.
Maureen C. O’Brien
Curator of Painting and Sculpture