Day 15 – Mary Cassatt, The Tea, about 1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Originally posted on 2 April 2020
A change of mood: let’s calm things down a little, and have a nice cup of tea, brought to us by Mary Cassatt, and the good people of Boston (www.mfa.org). There are some paintings which just make me want to stop, and look, and say, ‘Isn’t that lovely!’ And this is one of them. It’s so carefully composed, and harmoniously coloured. The two women, the tea service, and the vase in front of the mirror – or is it a painting? – are evenly spaced across the surface. The rich red of the tablecloth, with its thin, decorative border matches the floral patterning of the upholstered sofa shared by the two women, as well as the stripes of the wallpaper. The blue, presumably Japanese vase, with its gilt fittings, together with the frame of the painting (or is it a mirror?) echoes the colours of right-hand woman’s outfit, while also, together with the carved marble fireplace, describing the richly appointed lifestyle that was Cassatt’s milieu. The antique silver tea service is another indicator of this. There is such a focus on these still life details, with the carefully but freely painted teapot, sugar bowl and cup, the reflections on their surfaces and their reflections in the tray, that we might assume that this tea service is the real the subject of the painting. It is more prominent than the women, a third character in this domestic drama.
Mary Cassatt came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, and left the States just after the Civil War, like so many other Americans – she could almost have been in a Henry James novel. She wasn’t the only woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, but she was the only American. She joined them in 1877 at the invitation of Edgar Degas, so often maligned for his misogyny. I suspect he got grumpier as he got older (I know the feeling), and so a lot of the misogyny was general misanthropy.
You can see what he liked about her work from this image. The composition is not so very far from some of his own: two people in a room, drinking, a tray on the table, the table taking up most of the foreground space, the same tones and colours as the walls – a description that would fit both ‘The Tea’ by Cassatt and ‘Absinthe’ by Degas, painted three or four years earlier. The connection is purely coincidental – or rather, it is part of what makes them both Impressionists: they have common interests and concerns.
The Impressionists didn’t set out to be the most famous and successful artistic movement of the 19th Century – they just wanted their work to be seen. At the time there was only one main art exhibition per year – the annual ‘Salon’ – held by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and therefore officially sanctioned. If you wanted to get known, to be accepted and to sell work in France, you had to be seen there. But the paintings of a group of young artists who hung around in the circle of Edouard Manet in the Batignolles district of Paris were rejected. In true 1950s American movie fashion, they decided to ‘put on a show right here’ – ‘here’ in this case being the studio of the photographer Nadar at 35, Boulevard des Cappucines. This was in 1874. But what should they be called? Well, they marketed themselves as ‘The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.’ It was never going to catch on.
Although there were bad reviews, they were not really as bad as everyone always says. One critic did try and suggest a name for the group, saying that, as the word ‘Impression’ had been used by one of the artists – Claude Monet exhibited a landscape called ‘Impression: Sunrise’ – you could do worse than calling them ‘Impressionists’, as they really did capture the impression you had on first seeing things. The exhibition was definitely not a financial success, and they didn’t follow it up the following year. However, in 1876 they put together a second exhibition, under the same name and, in 1877, a third. This was the first that Cassatt contributed to – she was delighted to be involved. On receiving Degas’ invitation she said, ‘I accepted with joy… I hated conventional art’. This was the moment, she thought, at which she ‘began to live’. It was also the point at which the ‘Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.’ decided to cut to the chase and call themselves Impressionists.
They weren’t really a group, as such, and they didn’t really have a single style, although some of the more prominent artists did share similar interests. A lot of them painted outside, to capture the freshness of the moment – although Degas never did: he based a lot of his work on photography. Some of them were interested in bourgeois society, and the life of the city. Cassatt certainly fits in here. However, someone like Pissarro preferred peasant life and chose to live in small towns some way outside the capital – like Norwood, where he stayed during his years in London. But with all of them there is a sense that they stand on the outside looking in – voyeurs, perhaps. Or anthropologists. They loved people watching, and Cassatt’s great advantage was that she was a woman. Not only did she know how women behaved, but she had access to spaces and rituals that men could not have eperienced. Had ‘The Tea’ been painted by Renoir it would have been very different. The women would have been more buxom, for a start. And probably more girly – looking at the artist and smiling. Even giggling. Or languishing with bedroom eyes. Not Cassatt, though – she’s too good for that. She knows what it’s really like.
The similarities with ‘L’Absinthe’ relate to her attempt to make the image look real – almost like a snapshot. The table gets in our way, and distances us from the women, although, in an apparently contradictory way, it also bridges the gap between us and them, leading our eye into the painting. Cassatt has portrayed the scene just as she saw it, without bothering to tidy it up, to move the table out of the way, or to make sure we can see both of the women clearly. In fact, she goes out of the way not to show us the women, choosing, very carefully, the moment at which one of them is drinking her tea, so that the cup is almost completely covering her face. This is the point at which you realise that the Impressionists’ claim to be painting what they saw, when they saw it, just as they saw it could not possibly be true. This isn’t ‘fly on the wall’ observation, it is careful calculation. How long would you spend with a cup tipped up like that? And how long would it take to paint? More than a few minutes, certainly.
The women are dressed rather differently, one in plain brown, her right hand leaning on her cheek, the other resting her saucer on her left hand, which is clad in a delicate primrose-yellow glove. The other gloved fingers lightly hold the cup to her mouth, little finger aloof, as she looks away from her companion. As well as gloves, she wears a hat – she is a guest in the other woman’s house and has recently arrived from the outside world. Her rich, deep blue coat, like the accessories, points to her wealth. The woman in brown is presumably as wealthy – look at her room – but, as she is at home, she does not feel the need to make the point (all those Working From Home bear this in mind).Cassatt was the master (or mistress?) of gesture and character, of setting and mood. Why did she want to paint the guest in the act of drinking? Why cover so much of her face? And why is she looking away? The cup is tipped quite high – she must have nearly finished. And not a moment too soon – the hostess has nothing more to say to her, it seems. And, possibly, she is thinking to herself, ‘I hope that’s the last sip’. The patient, long-suffering expression seems to say as much. And why is there so much focus on the tea service? Maybe we are also present in this room, a third, unseen person, and like the woman in blue we have looked away, we’re focussing on the silverware, as there really is nothing more to say, nothing more to do. Talking of which, I really wouldn’t want to keep you any longer. But do feel free to linger, and enjoy the colours, the careful composition, the contrast between reclined relaxed hostess and upright, edgy guest, and that wonderful, tense, long, dramatic pause…