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Mary Cassatt: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Mary Cassatt: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878
National Gallery of Art Washington Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon

Americans
in Paris

Review by Corinna Lotz

Mary Cassatt is best known for her tender paintings of women and children. She was the bold American who joined the Impressionists and befriended the prickly Edgar Degas. He, in turn, immortalised her in a famous view from the back as she studied paintings at the Louvre.

A room featuring six of Cassatt’s women taking tea and images of children forms the heart of Americans in Paris at the National Gallery. She captures the restlessness and boredom of young children brilliantly. Her Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, was rejected when she submitted it to the American section of the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878. The angry artist then showed it the following year in the Impressionists’ alternative display.

A little girl in a white dress with a tartan sash lounges on a fauteuil upholstered in the shiniest of turquoise silk. She looks for all the world like a spoiled brat, cloistered in a wealthy home.  Perhaps it was the naughtily provocative pose (prefiguring Balthus) that ran against the polite mores of the day, perhaps the bold brushwork and high colouring. Cassatt’s young subjects rebel against the constrictions of polite behaviour. Her older sitters, when they are not holding or bathing children, seem to be fashion victims. They sit on elegant sofas drinking tea in fancy hats, holding china cups and wearing kid gloves, which takes a lot of doing. They capture the elegance of Paris, but also emphasise its artificiality.

Sargent: The Daughters of Edward Boit
John Singer Sargent: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit

A mixture of affluence and isolation also dominates the grandest work in this show – Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, lent by the Museum of Fine Art in Boston where the show will travel after closing in London. Painted four years after Cassatt’s Little Girl, it measures well over two metres square.  The three older girls, wearing starched white pinafores over their dark dresses, dwell in their own private world, while their younger sister plays on the floor with her doll. The air of fragile innocence is enhanced by the enormous blue and white china vases which frame an opening into another room, where a mirror gleams dimly over a mantlepiece. A boldly geometric red screen appears to lean against the huge vase on the right, leading to yet another unknown area. The luxurious Boit home is full of mysterious spaces, shapes and haunting relationships.

Cassatt, Sargent and Whistler are well-known as Americans who spent most of their life outside the US. It is a joy to see their work gathered together here. But perhaps what is more interesting is to discover some of their lesser-known contemporaries, especially the many women, who travelled to the French capital to study art. There is Cecilia Beaux, for example, who went from Philadelphia to Paris in 1888, to study painting. Her gorgeous portrait of a sitter and a cat, Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat) was painted in the US, but like her later Ernesta (Child with a Nurse), reveals the influence of Manet in its bold brushwork and compositional techniques.

Cecilia Beaux: Sita and Sarita
Cecilia Beaux: Sita and Sarita (Jeune fille au chat), 1893-4
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Gift of the Artist to the Musée du Luxembourg, 1921 (1980-60) inv. 1980-60 © RMN, Paris Photo René-Gabriel Ojéda

In the Nursery – Giverny Studio, painted by Mary Fairchild (later MacMonnies) around 1890, gives a glimpse into the complex life led by American women artists in Paris. In a small studio, a nanny cares for the artist’s two-year-old daughter, a seamstress is at work next to the artist’s easel, while sketches for a mural made by Fairchild for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago hang on the wall.

Mary Fairchild: In the Nursery - Giverny Studio
Mary Fairchild: In the Nursery - Giverny Studio (Dans la Nursery), c 1896-8 Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois, Daniel J. Terra Collection

John White Alexander and William Leroy Metcalf will be unfamiliar names, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. Their Paris scenes capture the very essence of café life. In Metcalf’s painting of 1888,  mirrored reflections extend deep into space. Alexander’s In the Cafe caused that one critic to remark that the Americans “can almost out-French the French”.

It is intriguing to discover such artists and their reaction to life in Paris, but it is at this point that the story starts to falter. The penultimate room, called “Summers in the Country”, is simply a collection of disparate works showing that the Americans spent time outside Paris, but not much else. If we learn anything at all, it is that there was little to unite them stylistically, let alone the emergence of a convincing American school of Impressionism which the final room is supposed to reveal – but fails to do.

The show as a whole does reveal that America discovered Impressionism decades before it became widely recognised in Europe, let alone Britain. Thanks partly to Mary Cassatt but also to the intrepid dealer Paul Durand Ruel, works by the French avant-garde were shown in New York and bought by collectors for years to come.

Americans in Paris is at the National Gallery until 21 May. Admission £9 concessions from £4. Open daily 10am-6pm. Late openings Wednesdays to 9pm. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

It travels to The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (25 June to 24 September), then to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (16 October 2006 - 28 January 2007)

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