Saturday, June 22, 2024

Art Eyewitness Review: Collecting Inspiration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


 Collecting Inspiration: Edward C. Moore at Tiffany Co.

Metropolitan Museum of Art 
June 9 - October 20, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Collecting Inspiration, the recently opened exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, celebrates the life and career of Edward C. Moore, and the firm he worked for, Tiffany Co.

Beautiful to behold, Collecting Inspiration was originally scheduled for presentation in 2020 as part of the Met 150 anniversary celebrations. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed, but fortunately did not derail this insightful look at Post-Civil War America. 

Special praise, therefore, needs to be accorded to Medill Higgins Harvey, the lead curator of Collecting Inspiration and the manager of the Met's Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art. The exhibition objects were assembled from several of the Met's curatorial departments, with some key loan items. To keep track of this vast, scattered treasure hoard and to keep the exhibition on track during years of delay required a curator of special talent and patience. Ms. Harvey certainly responded to these challenges.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Gallery views of Collecting Inspiration: Edward C. Moore at Tiffany Co. Medill Higgins Harvey, curator of the exhibition, is shown in the bottom photo

Collecting Inspiration is also a cautionary tale of the cycle of fame and obscurity. One could easily overlook somber lessons on life while gazing at the array of Gilded Age silver masterpieces and ancient works of art in the Met's special exhibit gallery. But there are indeed some powerful reflections to be had from Collecting Inspiration and and not just from the glittering, polished Tiffany silverware on view!

Except among experts in American art history, few people are aware of the protagonist of Collecting Inspiration, Edward C. Moore (1827-1891). But the Tiffany Company, to which Moore devoted his formidable talents, is a name familiar to almost everyone.

Tiffany diamonds. Tiffany jewelry. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Little girls named Tiffany. Tiffany, Tiffany, Tiffany …

Tiffany Co. remains a byword for opulence, but Moore's highly esteemed reputation - he was the recipient of the French Legion of Honor in 1889  - gradually faded away, relegated to the footnotes of art history books.

Who, then, was Edward C. Moore? 

Portrait photo of Edward C. Moore
 from The Illustrated American, August 29, 1891

Trained as a silversmith by his father, Edward Moore developed into an astute scholar of art, ancient and modern. With an eye for quality and exacting standards of workmanship, Moore guided, supervised and inspired the artisans at Tiffany Co. during the "Gilded Age" decades of the late nineteenth century.

Moore amassed an awesome art collection, chiefly of glassware, metalwork and ceramics. Moore collected widely and wisely. His choice selections ranged from ancient Roman and Venetian glassware to superb metal objects from the Middle East to Japonisme, the hand-crafted masterpieces which astonished Western art lovers following the opening of trade links to Japan in the 1850's-1860's.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) 
Gallery view of Collecting Inspiration,
showing 17th & 18th century European glassware. 

The stunning works of decorative art which we can now admire in Collecting Inspiration were first displayed in an art gallery in Moore's home. This was not a matter of relaxed, recreational enjoyment. Moore closely studied the works in his collection to incorporate technical and aesthetic insights into new, original works being designed for Tiffany's.

Moore also built the "Prince Street Workshop." This five-story design and production site, located at 53-55 Prince Street, lower-Manhattan, was the epicenter of the Tiffany silver goods juggernaut. One of the most technologically advanced production sites of the Victorian era, the Prince Street Workshop was featured in a 1877 article of Scientific American. 

AdditionallyMoore turned his Prince Street "factory" into what today we would call a "learning lab." After Moore died in 1891, a contemporary journal, The Illustrated American, noted that early in the 1860's, before joining Tiffany's: 

Mr. Moore saw the need of better artistic instructions and, realizing the meager facilities offered in this city, more particularly in the decorative and industrial arts, he set to work to establish a system of instruction and training in his Prince Street works that soon developed into the most thorough and complete school of its kind in existence.

Of the caliber of Moore's teaching, The Illustrated American was equally laudatory: 

Constantly seeking to improve on old methods, silversmithing and metal-working were raised by him to such a standard that they graded insensibly into the fine arts.

Viewed from a broad historical focus, we can now see Edward C. Moore for what he was: one of the pioneers of American research and development, R&D.

Following Moore's death in 1891, his collection of nearly 1700 works of art and his professional library were bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This act of generosity helped transform the Met into one of the greatest museums on earth. 

For many years, the Edward C. Moore collection was kept intact and displayed in a separate gallery at the Met.  A photo from the museum's archives gives us a rare look into the life achievement of one of America's greatest art collectors.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) 
An archival photo of the Edward C. Moore collection, 1894, 
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Collecting Inspiration  presents a judicious selection of 180 works of art collected by Moore. These "best of the best" are complemented by 70 of the silver treasures created in the Tiffany workshops under Moore's direction.

A native New Yorker, Edward C. Moore was the son of a master silversmith, John Chandler Moore. Together, father and son were so accomplished in creating silverware of every description that they won fame as New York City’s finest.

Edward C. Moore, Baby Presentation Cup, 1853

A baby presentation cup (above) made by Edward in 1853 recalls the austere beauty and technical proficiency of colonial New England silversmiths. No greater accolade could be paid to an American silversmith during the 1800's.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Moore’s company was hired as exclusive producers of silver objects for Tiffany Co. This “stationary and fancy goods emporium” had been founded in 1837 by Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young. Innovative in their marketing strategy and committed to the highest standards of quality, Tiffany was the perfect sales venue for the silver work of John and Edward Moore.

In 1868, after his father retired, Edward Moore sold his family firm to Tiffany’s and joined the company as its chief silver designer. A sharp business man, Moore retained ownership of 53-55 Prince Street. Tiffany Co. agreed to pay $6000 per year in rent, a hefty sum for the mid-1800's.

Tiffany & Co. trademark, from the base of the Magnolia Vase, 1893. 

Now that Moore was in charge of silverware production, Tiffany Co. was no longer a mere retail “emporium.” It was an art & craft empire, an able competitor to the best designers and artisans of Europe. 

As we will see, many notable silver pieces, presentation vases and yacht-race "challenge" cups, would be created in the Tiffany workshops. But one of Moore's most important decisions was to begin production of sets of high-grade silver flatware - knives, forks, spoons and serving implements. Especially when purchased as wedding gifts, sales of flatware yielded huge profits for Tiffany's.

Over the next three decades, Tiffany’s silver would win prize medals and renown at the numerous exhibitions which were such a notable feature of the late nineteenth century.

Of these “world fairs”, none was so significant for the United States – and Tiffany Co. - as the Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876.

The wounds of the Civil War had barely scabbed-over by 1876. Though the stated purpose of the Exposition was to demonstrate U.S. industrial power, the Centennial also aimed to assert that the American union of states was once again strong and secure. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Swan Centerpiece, 1874. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co.

With Moore at the helm of the silver department, Tiffany prepared a show-stopping display for the Centennial. On view was a spectacular silver and gilt swan centerpiece. Hammered from a single sheet of silver, with only the head, feet and beaded decorations fashioned separately, the swan floated on a mirror placed on top of a silver pedestal.

The silver-gilt swan centerpiece (priced at $3,000!) was outshone by the Bryant Vase, commissioned to honor the poet, William Cullen Bryant, shortly before the opening of Centennial Exposition.

The Bryant Vase, 1876. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co.

The Bryant Vase was one of the sensations of the Centennial. It is a hugely significant work of art in the saga of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, being one of the earliest American-made works of art to enter the Met's collection.

Edward Moore oversaw the creation of The Bryant Vase, but the actual work was done by the team of experts he recruited. The designer of the vase was James Horton Whitehouse (1833-1902) and the craftmanship, known as “chasing", was executed by Eugene Soligny (1832-1901). Such brilliant teamwork was a characteristic of Tiffany’s silver department during Moore’s tenure.

There is no mistaking the Bryant Vase as a signature piece of High Victorian taste. Unlike the classic simplicity of the 1853 presentation cup made by Moore himself, the Bryant Vase is so loaded with symbolism and embellishments that it almost sinks under its dense mass of fretwork, oak leaves, corn stalks, apple blossoms, cattails and water lilies.

 Detail of The Bryant Vase, 1876. One of the medallions, by August Saint-Gaudens, depicting the life of William Cullen Bryant, is shown.

Almost … In its finished state, the Bryant Vase secured its masterpiece status by virtue of the medallions depicting incidents in the long, storied life of William Cullen Bryant. One of America’s first great poets, newspaper editor of genius and staunch opponent of slavery, Bryant was a great friend of the landscape painter, Thomas Cole, and, with Cole, an early environmentalist.

These medallions, depicting key episodes in Bryant’s life, were designed by a young Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Dublin-born sculptor’s awesome talent was already in evidence two decades before his greatest work, the Colonel Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial, was unveiled in Boston in 1897.

Saint-Gauden's medallions on the Bryant Vase are incredibly small and sculpted in low-relief. The example (above) shows a young William Cullen Bryant meditating in a forest glade. The scene depicts the genesis of Bryant's once-celebrated poem, Thanatopsis. It is simply marvelous to behold, the story of man immersed in nature, scaled down to scarcely bigger in size than a silver dollar coin.

Despite the outpouring of heart-felt sentiment, artistic skill and untold hours of hard work that were devoted to it, the Bryant Vase is difficult for modern art lovers to embrace. Hero worship has gone out of style and the Victorian mania for trophy presentation often seems faintly absurd. 

Some of the examples of Tiffany presentation pieces have retained a measure of their original appeal. The Goelet Cup, Schooner Prize (1884) on loan from the New York Yacht Club, certainly is a striking work of art. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Goelet Cup, Schooner Prize, 1884. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co.

After examining the "Gilded Age" trophies and presentation pieces made by Tiffany Co. craftsmen under Moore's direction, the Met exhibition adjusts its focus to the display of Moore's sensational art collection.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of Collecting Inspiration, showing glass bottles and a glass cinerary urn from the Roman era.

Moore was an frequent and experienced traveler to Europe, at a time when trans-Atlantic voyages were still perilous undertakings. His world view extended far beyond the Western world, enabling him to appreciate works like the exquisite decorated plate from Iran (below), dated to the seventeenth century.

Plate with Vegetal Decoration in a Seven-pointed Star, 1655-80. Made in Iran.

Moore appraised the Iranian plate and other works from Asia (below) from the same standpoint as the more familiar terracotta mixing vessel from a Greek colony in southern Italy. That is to say from aesthetic and craft perspectives.  Over and above all other considerations regarding his collection was a utilitarian appreciation of the salient features of these superbly made works of art.

Footed Bowl with Eagle Emblem, mid-13th century. Probably Syria.

Terracotta calyx-krater (mixing bowl), ca. 350–300 BCE. 
From the Greek colonies, southern Italy.

How much of the cultural background of his works of art from Asia Moore understood is not known. Art scholarship related to the non-Western world was still not advanced in his day. But Moore had a powerful mind and an eye for quality. Even down to the small fragments of ancient Greek and Roman glass, Moore collected only masterpieces.

Meiji era Lacquer Boxmid-19th century, Japan

Moore had a high regard for beauty, too. The passion with which he embraced Japan art is proof of that. The many Japanese works of art he collected were examined for technical purposes or artistic details like the butterfly motif on this stunningly beautiful box, most likely used for tea ceremony utensils. The gold and silver butterflies were executed in a technique known as hiramaki-e, "flat sprinkled picture."

Moore and his Tiffany team only rarely copied directly from an artistic source to be found in his collection. Usually Moore's intensive study yielded ideas or craft methods which would be refined, like precious metal in a crucible, to create a unique, frequently unprecedented, work of art. The Conglomerate Vase, which wowed art critics and visitors to the 1878 Paris Exposition, is perhaps the best example of this process of selecting and synthesizing. 

There's no glossing over Moore's almost instinctive feel for finely-crafted objects which appeal to the eye, but even more so to the "mind's eye". This is the sacred space in which all great artists store visual sensations and ideas for later use.

Moore continued to explore the thoughts and images in his "mind's eye" for new Tiffany product ideas. He was intrigued with the process of enameling in combination with metal work. Over the course of the 1880's an elaborate series of experiments were conducted at the Prince Street Workshop.

Early in 1890, the Congress authorized a second world's fair to be held in the U.S. The fair was scheduled for 1893, to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas. Chicago faced-off a challenge by New York City to host the World's Columbian Exposition.

Moore and his Tiffany team set to work on a masterpiece which would reflect the emphasis on American themes announced by the Exposition organizing committee. The Tiffany vase would use only silver, gold, precious stones and other materials from American sources. Tiffany's refined enameling process would be showcased. 

Another Tiffany masterpiece was on "the drawing board" by the summer of 1891. Then, on August 2, 1891, Edward C. Moore died at his summer home at Hastings-on-Hudson. 

Charles Calverley, Edward C. Moore, 1894

What could have - perhaps should have - been a disaster was redeemed by the decades long career of Edward C. Moore. He had built, planned. organized and led by example an organization that could - and did -outlive him.  

Following Moore's death, the staff at Prince Street closed ranks and kept working - on the trademark products for the fabled Tiffany catalog and on the vase planned for the Chicago Columbian Exposition. For two years, fifteen Tiffany craftsman worked on different facets of the vase, the delicate enameling being entrusted to an expert in that medium, a man named Godfrey Swaby.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) 
The Magnolia Vase, 1893. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co.

The masterpiece planned for the Chicago fair duly took shape. The Magnolia Vase is now one of the jewels of the Met, which received it as donation in 1899.

The Magnolia Vase, shaped like a Pueblo Indian vessel, celebrates America and the natural world with three bands of native flora: evergreen trees for north and east; magnolia flowers for south and west; cacti for the southwest. 

What sets the Magnolia Vase apart from the other Tiffany masterpieces in the Met exhibit is the duplication of the colors of nature achieved by the application of the Tiffany enameling process.

As Medill Higgins Harvey writes:

The Magnolia vase is a triumph of virtuosic enameling; its subtle tonal shifts, from violet to pink to white and from yellow to green, imbue the blossoms with natural color and texture.

Even more than the silver portrait bust made in his honor, Edward C. Moore received his truest testimonial with the Magnolia Vase. One may wonder how a man of such talent and so many achievements could have been so forgotten. But I don't think Moore would have been bothered.

Tiffany & Co. continues to prosper, in no small part because of the professional methodologies which Moore originated so long ago. And what artist and craftsman could be anything but pleased to hear that a work of art he helped to plan has been described as being imbued with the color and texture of nature.                       


Introductory illustration:                                                                                    Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Dish, (depicting the 1678 novel, La princess de Cleves), 1875-76. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. Silver, copper, niello, and gold: 2 1/8 × 20 1/8 in. (5.4 × 51.1 cm). The Newark Museum of Art,

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Collecting Inspiration: Edward C. Moore at Tiffany Co.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of Collecting Inspiration, showing curator Medill Higgins Harvey of the Metropolitan Museum

Portrait photo of Edward C. Moore from The Illustrated American, August 29, 1891

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of Collecting Inspiration, showing 17th and 18th century European glassware. The spouted glass vessel at top is a drinking bottle from Spain called a PorrĂ³n.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Copy of a 1894 photo of the Edward C. Moore collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Edward C. Moore (American, 1827–1891) Baby Presentation Cup, 1853.Made in New York City.  Silver and silver-gilt: 3 3/4 x 3 1/4 x 4 3/4 in. (9.5 x 8.3 x 12.1 cm); 6 oz. 14 dwt. (208.2 g) Metropolitan Museum of Art. # 2005.70

Tiffany & Co. trademark, from the base of the Magnolia Vase , 1893. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see the citation below).

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Swan Centerpiece, 1874. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. Silver and silver gilt: 14 1/2 × 13 1/2 × 24 in. (36.8 × 34.3 × 61 cm). Rough Point Collection, Newport Restoration Foundation, Newport, Rhode Island

The Bryant Vase, 1876. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. Designed by James Horton Whitehouse (1833–1902); chased by Eugene J. Soligny (1832–1901); medallions by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, Dublin 1848–1907. Made in New York City. Silver and gold: 33 1/2 x 14 x 11 5/16 in. (85.1 x 35.6 x 28.7 cm); Diam. 11 5/16 in. (28.7cm); 452 oz. 16 dwt. (14084.2 g) Metropolitan Museum of Art. #77.9a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Goelet Cup, Schooner Prize, 1884. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. Designed by Eugene J. Soligny (1832–1901), James Horton Whitehouse (1833–1902) and Charles Osborne (1847–1920). Made in New York City. Silver and silver gilt: 18 5/8 × 10 1/4 × 22 in. (47.3 × 26 × 55.9 cm). Lent by the New York Yacht Club

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of Collecting Inspiration, showing display of glass bottles and flasks from the Roman Empire era and a glass cinerary urn with lid, 1st to 4th centuries.

Plate with Vegetal Decoration in a Seven-pointed Star, 1655-80. Made in Iran. Stonepaste, polychrome-painted under transparent glaze: H. 2 ½ in. (6.4 cm) Diam. 18 ¼ in. (46.4 cm) Edward C. Moore Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art 91.1.129

Footed Bowl with Eagle Emblem, mid-13th century. Attributed probably Syria. Glass, dip-molded, blown, enameled, and gilded: H. 7 3/16 in. (18.3 cm); Max. Diam. 8 in. (20.3 cm); Diam. of Base: 5 in. (12.7 cm). Edward C. Moore Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art # 91,1.1538

Terracotta calyx-krater (mixing bowl), ca. 350–300 BCE. From the Greek colonies, southern Italy. Terracotta; applied color:14 1/4 in. (36.2 cm) Diameter: 8 7/8 in. × 3 9/16 in. (22.5 × 9 cm) Mouth: 36.3 cm (14 5/16 in.) Height: 3 5/8 in. (9.3 cm). Edward C. Moore Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art # 91.1.464

Meiji Era Lacquer Box, mid-19th century, Japan. Lacquered wood with gold and silver hiramaki-e, mother-of-pearl inlay on black lacquer ground; leather strap with metal fittings: H. 5 1/4 in. (13.3 cm); W. 5 1/4 in. (13.3 cm); D. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm). Edward C. Moore Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art # 91.1.629

Charles Calverley (American, 1833–1914) Edward C. Moore, 1894. Bronze: 17 3/4 x 16 x 6 3/4 in. (45.1 x 40.6 x 17.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of C. T. Cook and friends, 1894. #94.28

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) The Magnolia Vase, 1893. Manufactured by Tiffany & Co. Silver, enamel, gold, and opals: Overall: 30 7/8 x 19 1/2 in. (78.4 x 49.5 cm); 838 oz. 11 dwt. (26081.6 g) Foot: Diam. 13 1/2 in.(34.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art # 99.2

Friday, May 31, 2024

Art Eyewitness Review: Mary Cassatt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mary Cassatt at Work

Philadelphia Museum of Art

May 18 -  September 8, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd 

Beginning on April 19, 1879, the Fourth Impressionist exhibition opened its doors to a much more appreciative audience than had attended the first showing by the group back in April 1874. For the price of 1 franc, art enthusiasts could study - and hopefully buy - the latest work by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and fourteen other artists. Renoir was a no-show that year, but an American-born recruit, invited to join by Degas, displayed 12 striking works of art.

It proved to be a dazzling debut. The dozen exhibited works included three superb pastels. But the standouts were two magnificent oil paintings - a beautiful portrait of a young woman at the Paris Opera and an unforgettable depiction of a bored, mischievous child sprawled on a blue-upholstered arm chair.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Woman in a Loge, 1879

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78

With these now-iconic paintings, the newest, and the only American-born, member of the Impressionists claimed her place in the ranks of the Independents (as the group was still officially known). By the time the Fourth Impressionist exhibition ended in May 1879 and 15,000 patrons had paid their 1 franc entrance fee, Mary Stevenson Cassatt had made her mark in the world of art.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Signature of Mary Cassatt on Bathing the Young Heir, 1890-91

Today, Woman in a Loge and Little Girl on a Blue Arm Chair are reunited in another special exhibition. This time, Cassatt’s works are on view in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Dorrance Galleries. Entitled Mary Cassatt at Work, this exhibition is an insight-packed examination of Cassatt's methodology, bound to heighten her status in art history as one of the major artists of her era.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 View of the East Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
 showing banners advertising the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit

Mary Cassatt at Work will surely delight art lovers who make the pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see it. With 130 works of art on view - oil paintings, works in pastel and prints - the exhibition curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) needed every square inch of gleaming, glistening gallery space to do justice to Cassatt's achievements.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of Mary Cassatt at Work, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It's high time to celebrate Cassatt's amazing artistic career. Mary Cassatt at Work is the first major exhibition of the great American Impressionist to be held by a U.S. museum in a quarter of a century. Back in 1998-99, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston presented Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman. Despite the rousing success of this exhibition, Cassatt retrospectives remain surprisingly rare.

To focus on Cassatt’s “modernity” is to risk forgetting that she was a Victorian, a Victorian radical, certainly, but still a person of her era.

During the Victorian age, the “gospel of work” was a favorite theme of social commentators. The virtues of labor and industry were usually ascribed to the formidable, bewhiskered gentleman of the era. 

Given Cassatt’s frequent choice of scenes of family life and leisure as her chosen subject, one could be excused for thinking that she somehow found a way to ignore or evade the moralizing sermons of men like John Ruskin, who called for an embrace of “the pleasure and arduousness of useful, physical labor.”

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, 1896

I don’t think that Cassatt and Ruskin would have agreed on much else, but on the importance of work, these two “eminent” Victorians were in complete accord.

Two years of intensive study of the 84 works of art by Cassatt in the PMA collection enabled curators, Jennifer A. Thompson and Laurel Garber, to grasp the importance of work for Cassatt. Toil and fortitude, exacting attention to technique and a proud sense of professionalism were revealed as key determinants of Cassatt's character.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Copy of a photo of Mary Cassatt, Paris, c. 1867

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) came from a wealthy American family, though not extravagantly so by the Robber Baron standards of the post-Civil War era. Cassatt’s parents – who were otherwise devoted to her - refused to subsidize her career in the hope that she would resume a more ladylike attitude toward life and art: get married and paint for pleasure.

Cassatt was not content with painting as a gentile, feminine accomplishment. She was driven to succeed commercially, desiring pay for her efforts rather than faint praise. The foundation of Cassatt’s success as a professional artist, first noticed at the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, can be summed up in that one word: work.

Work. Diligent, dedicated effort, characterized by the courage to try, fail and try again. 

Cassatt’s determination to create great works of art led her to express her attitude toward labor in remarks that now seem deliberately composed for inclusion in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations:

“I work & that is the whole secret of anything like conten(ment) with life.”

“I am independent! I can live alone & I love my work.”

“What one would like to leave behind is superior art and a hidden personality.”                                                    

For Cassatt, these assertions expressed the simple, unvarnished truth of her life. For historians and students of art, Cassatt ‘s “hidden personality” is a call to action.

Cassatt’s genius can be observed in the details of her paintings, pastels and prints. In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Thompson and Garber direct our attention to the hands of the women Cassatt painted or, in the case of The Banjo Lesson, depicted with pastel.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Detail of Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894

Thompson and Garber perceptively comment on the never "idle" hands of Cassatt's protagonists.

Despite the spontaneity of her style, Cassatt’s attentive depictions of hands, whether at rest or in motion – wetting a towel, plucking a banjo or holding a book, balancing horse reins or cradling a nursing child – demonstrate that she was very much in control. These details challenge the idea that her oeuvre focuses solely on moments of leisure.

In fact, close study of Cassatt’s work reveals that she excluded everything except serious, purposeful activity by her female protagonists. No lawn tennis playing or bicycle riding, very popular activities for spirited American girls of her era. No amateur dabbling with sketch books or water colors!

This view of Cassatt as a thorough professional - rather than a gentile painter of mothers and infants - may come as a jolt. Mary Cassatt at Work has quite a number of surprises in store. Be prepared to entertain new interpretations of Cassatt and her oeuvre!

The first “concern” to be addressed is the absence of several of the greatest and most beloved paintings by Cassatt. Every special exhibition presents challenges about which signature works of art “must” be included and those that, for one reason or another, elude the curators' grasp.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition,
 showing Mary Cassatt’s Lydia at a Tapestry Frame, 1880

It was a real privilege to be able to see Lydia at a Tapestry Frame (1880) from the Flint Institute of Art. This was surely an essential Cassatt painting for a “Work” themed exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Young Mother Sewing (1900) also addresses this topic, but is not on view. The Met loaned other important works, notably Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly (1880) which I will discuss in a follow-up essay.

More serious are the omission of key Cassatt paintings from the National Gallery in Washington, like The Boating Party. But this is due to the stipulation of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Galley that its paintings may not travel to other museums. The National Gallery did send Little Girl in a Blue Arm Chair, a truly sensational work of art, which benefited from Degas' assistance soon after he met Cassatt in 1877.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Detail of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78

The real “surprise” of Mary Cassatt at Work is the premier status accorded to Cassatt’s prints in the over-all plan of the exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) 
Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work,
 showing three states of Mary Cassatt’s print, The Fitting, 1890-1891

Cassatt's introduction to printmaking came from the same source as her invitation to join the Impressionists, Edgar Degas. Cassatt had studied traditional engraving techniques under an Italian master, Carlo Raimundi, in 1872. But it was the daring, unconventional nature of Degas' art, beginning with some of his pastels which Cassatt saw in a dealer's window in Paris, which "changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

After viewing prints by Cassatt, Degas recruited her to join with him, Camille Pissarro and Felix Bracquemond to produce a journal of engravings to be entitled Le Jour et la nuit. This was to be a new version of "impressionism" - images pressed onto paper, a visionary, modernist approach to a time-honored medium.

Unfortunately, Le Jour et la nuit never progressed beyond the planning stages. Cassatt was deeply disappointed. But preoccupied with exhibiting at the   Impressionist exhibitions of the 1880's and caring for her elderly parents who had come to live with her in France, Cassatt had little time for printmaking initiatives on her own.

In 1890, this frustrating situation changed radically. A vast exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints, held at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, seized hold of Cassatt's imagination after she visited the show with Degas. 

"You who want to make color prints," Cassatt wrote to Berthe Morisot, "you couldn't dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don't think of anything else but color on copper."

Cassatt determined to do a series of 10 color prints, each illustrating an incident from a related topic, the daily lives of Parisian women. Unlike the Japanese woodblock printers, she would use the etching/aquatint on copper plate process, as she mentioned to Morisot. 

Although Cassatt hired a professional printer to assist her, she did much of the exacting, messy and potentially hazardous work herself!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Detail of Mary Cassatt’s print, The Letter, 1890-91

Rather than discuss Cassatt's printing technique in a review like this, the wisest course is to leave this subject to the experts. In the case of Mary Cassatt at Work, this is Christina Taylor, Conservator for Works of Art on Paper at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With  the help of Laurel Garber and Tom Primeau, Taylor recreated, step-by-step, the printmaking process used by Cassatt to make The Letter (the original shown above).

A video recording of Taylor at work on her version of The Letter is featured in the exhibition gallery dedicated to Cassatt's "The Ten" and is also available in a longer version on YouTube. This video brilliantly complements the works of art on display in Mary Cassatt at Work and is highly recommended.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
  Christina Taylor, Conservator, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

After watching the video, visitors are well-primed to understand Cassatt's exacting and exhausting printmaking regimen. One entire wall of the gallery is devoted to showing the progressive versions or "states" of one of the series of depictions of Parisian women. Starting with Cassatt's preliminary drawing, it concludes with the seventeenth state of seventeen of The Bath.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit, showing the original drawing & early print states of Mary Cassatt’s The Bath, 1890-91

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1890-1891 
 (seventeenth state of seventeen)

The ten final plates were utilized to create limited-edition sets of 25 prints of each. These were marketed by Cassatt's dealer, the renowned Paul Durand Ruel. The complete series of prints of "The Ten" is displayed on the opposite wall, making this gallery a tour de force presentation of classic printmaking and Cassatt's unrivaled application of the process. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 )
 Gallery view of Mary Cassatt at Work, showing Cassatt’s “The Ten” 

What should have been a singular artistic and financial success proved to be a frustrating disappointment. Despite all the innovations going on in the Parisian art world of the 1890's, connoisseurs were not prepared for Cassatt's "The Ten" prints.

The test of time has yielded a different verdict on "The Ten" series. Adelyn Breeskin, long-time head of the Baltimore Museum of Art and a major Cassatt scholar, declared that Cassatt’s prints were “her most original contribution… technically, as color prints they have never been surpassed.”

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Woman Bathing, 1890-91

The amount of gallery space devoted to Cassatt's prints raises a major point of concern. Is too much attention being devoted to Cassatt’s softground etchings and drypoint prints? One might conclude that this is so, especially at the “expense” of Cassatt's oil paintings.

After some reflection on the matter, I feel that the curators have made the correct decisions, vis-a-vis the amount of relative attention paid to paintings and prints in the exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Sailor Boy: Portrait of Gardner Cassatt as a Child, 1892

It is Cassatt's pastels - it seems to me -which need more emphasis in the galleries of Mary Cassatt at Work

Although there is an excellent chapter in the exhibit catalog on Cassatt's pastels, I think that a gallery devoted primarily to pastels would have greatly enriched our appreciation of Cassatt "the worker." It was pastels upon which Cassatt relied to continue her career as cataracts imperiled her vision, leading eventually to almost complete blindness.

A similar case study can be found in the life of Henri Matisse. Faced with ill health and a life-threatening abdominal cancer operation, Matisse turned to making illustrations for special edition art books, livre d'artiste, cutting out designs with scissors and specially colored art paper. The recent exhibition at the PMA, Matisse in the 1930's devoted a special gallery to these late-career works on paper. 

A comparable display focusing on Cassett's pastels would have done much to increase our understanding of Cassett's efforts to keep working, as the tide of life began to shift away from her.

However we approach Cassatt's pastels, these beautiful, sensitive works deserve to be studied and appreciated. They need to be valued aesthetically for the marvelous technique which Cassatt devoted to them, the related facility of hand and eye.

Ultimately, Cassatt's pastels are statements on human values, tenderness, empathy, caring and sharing.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Mary Cassatt’s Ellen Mary Cassatt, c.1889

In a forthcoming essay on Cassatt, I intend to reflect upon her humane feeling and the way it nurtured her art Cassatt's loving relationship with her sister, Lydia, will receive special attention. And some comment will be made on Cassatt's predeliction for painting mothers and babies, as an extension of her life.

For now, let us close with a detail from my favorite of Cassatt's pastels, The Banjo Lesson (1894)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was reputed to be a strong-willed, "difficult" woman. No doubt she was ambitious, driven to succeed. She could be antagonistic toward rivals like "that woman" Celia Beaux or haughtily dismissive, "What Sargent wants is fame and a great reputation."

But nobody paints or creates with pastel such a scene of warmth and humanity as this, unless there is a glowing ember or two of love and compassion deep within their hearts.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s Driving, 1881. Oil on canvas: 34 7/8 x 51 in. (88.8 x 129.8 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Woman in a Loge, 1879. Oil on canvas: 32 1/16 × 23 7/16 in. (81.5 × 59.5 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art # 1978-1-5

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78. Oil on canvas: 35 1/4 × 51 1/8 inches (89.5 × 129.9 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington # 1983.1.18

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Signature of Mary Cassatt on Bathing the Young Heir, 1890-91

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) View of the East Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing banners advertising the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, 1896. Oil on canvas: 15 × 21 1/4 inches (38.1 × 54 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Copy of a photo of Mary Cassatt, Paris, c. 1867

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894. (Full citation below.)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition, showing Mary Cassatt’s Lydia at a Tapestry Frame, 1880. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78. (Full citation above.)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit, showing three states of Mary Cassatt’s The Fitting, 1890-1891. Drypoint and aquatint on wove paper. From the Cohn Family collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s print, The Letter.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Video image showing Christina Taylor, Conservator for Works of Art on Paper at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit, showing  the original drawing and early print states of Mary Cassatt’s The Bath, 1890-91.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) The Bath, 1890-1891. Color drypoint, soft-ground etching, and aquatint on laid paper, seventeenth state of seventeen: Plate: 12 5/8 × 9 3/4 inches (32.1 × 24.7 cm) Sheet: 17 3/16 × 11 13/16 inches (43.6 × 30 cm) Mat: 22 × 18 inches (55.9 × 45.7 cm. Art Institute of Chicago

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition, showing Mary Cassatt’s “The Ten” prints. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Woman Bathing, 1890-91. Color drypoint and aquatint on laid paper: 14 ½ x 10 3/8 inches (36.8 inches x 26.3 cm) From a private collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Sailor Boy: Portrait of Gardner Cassatt as a Child, 1892. Pastel on paper Sheet: 25 × 19 inches (63.5 × 48.3 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Ellen Mary Cassatt, c.1889. Pastel on laid paper: 12 × 14 1/2 inches (30.5 × 36.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. # 60.132.1

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894. Pastel over oiled pastel on paper: 28 × 22 1/2 inches (71.1 × 57.2 cm).  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond