14 MARCH 1998, Page 26


Is it getting cold in that bath, Madame Bonnard?


The rapturous reception of the Bonnard exhibition irks me. He was an interesting colourist, but I am dismayed by the general ineptitude of his drawing and the way in which, when you look closely at the focal points of his pictures, the detail is missing. And why did a man who could not master perspective choose so many subjects for which competence in getting the planes right is essential? The baths in which his naked women repose in two feet of water are only, seen from the outside, two inches deep.

To clear my mind of old Bonnard I have been studying the work of Mary Cassatt, the great American artist who went blind. Some moving letters describing her distress are published in the fine catalogue which the New York Metropolitan Museum pro- vided to accompany its recent exhibition of Degas as a collector. It was Degas who encouraged Cassatt to join him and the other Impressionists in exhibiting outside the Salon. But Cassatt was not an Impres- sionist, she was sui generis.

She was properly taught and was also, more importantly, self-taught by intense study of Old Masters, notably Velazquez and Rubens. From them she learned internal structural composition, which is not easily acquired. By this I mean that each of the ele- ments in her pictures is placed exactly where it ought to be in relation to the others. In particular the tilt and contours of each face and the direction of the eyes are correct to the nearest micromillimetre. That is why her matemelles (paintings of mother and child) are so convincing — the spatial relationships are exactly right. Added to this was the pre- cision of the detail and the delicacy of the brushwork: she was the only painter I know who could suggest sleepiness in a small child or the almost angry drowsiness of a baby who has just been woken up to be washed or fed. By comparison, Degas, whom she hero- worshipped, was broad-brush, almost crude, despite his magisterial drawing.

I love to gaze and gaze at Cassatt's best work, as I do at a Vermeer, because every last brushstroke (visible in her case, invisi- ble in his) has been made in exactly the right place. Cassatt had big strong hands, as most good painters do, and she held the brush with absolute confidence. She must have looked hard and long before she made each stroke, as Gwen John did, for her work was planned and built up with immense patience. This degree of profes- sionalism would have been impossible had Cassatt not forsworn marriage and materni- ty. She could not have combined it with other duties, even the social chores to which, for instance, Jane Austen had to submit. Austen could slip her writing under the blot- ter when visitors were announced and resume it the second they left, but Cassatt could not stow away all her elaborate appa- ratus. A painter cannot become professional without undisturbed days and weeks. Flo- rence Nightingale complained that women who wished to create were subjected to the tyranny of 'odd times' snatched from between their domestic duties. 'How differ- ent would be the heart for work, how differ- ent would be the success,' she wrote, 'if we learned our work as a serious study and fol- lowed it up as a profession. If a man were to follow up his profession at odd times, how would he do it? . . . Women themselves acknowledge that they are inferior in every occupation to men. Is it surprising? They do everything at "odd times".'

Cassatt escaped from this prison by sacri- ficing love and children. She was a very fem- inine woman with reservoirs of love to pour out, and subject to strong emotions, so the loss was bitter. But her loss is our gain because she sublimated in her work the womanly tenderness she was denied in life. She compensated by thinking deeply about women and their condition, and how it is reflected in their faces, attitudes and pos- tures, in the way they lean over and into their work — holding or washing a baby, doing tapestry, reading — and above all in their eyes. Her love for the children she never had was used to observe these small creatures with minute exactitude • (just as Dorothy Wordsworth observed plants and weather) and render them with heart-mov- ing fidelity, especially in their intimate rela'- tionships with their mothers. Cassatt's matemelles make those of Vigee Le Brun, her only possible rival, look superficial. If Cassatt had lived around the year 1500 in Italy, she would have painted the Virgin and . .

A dome is a white elephant designed by committee.' Child in ways to challenge even Raphael.

But then, being a woman, she would probably not have been allowed to paint at all — few women were in the Renaissance. At least in the America of the third quarter of the 19th century, as the daughter of wealthy, cultured parents, she was able to study in Europe and practise the skills she thus acquired. She was underrated then, and is even now. Griselda Pollock, in an illuminating study of her work, notes that this neglect was due to three things: she was a woman, she was an American, and she painted women, and women and chil- dren, almost exclusively. These handicaps took her out of the focus of fame and made her at times invisible. When she returned to her home state, Pennsylvania, in 1898, having held one-woman shows in Paris and New York, exhibited widely and sold enough pictures to purchase a chateau with her earnings, the Philadelphia Ledger reported her arrival as follows: 'Mary Cas- satt, sister of Mr Cassatt, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, returned from Europe yesterday. She has been studying painting in France and owns the smallest Pekinese dog in the world.'

The failure to recognise Cassatt's achievements means that some of her work has simply disappeared, probably more than we realise. Lost canvases include her painting of a mother and child, 'Breakfast in Bed', one of her most enchanting oils, a masterpiece of composition, tenderness, realism and intuition. In the winter of 1910, when she was 66, her eyesight began to weaken and she had to stop her print-mak- ing, a process at which she excelled, pro- ducing exquisite specimens of dry-point, soft-ground and aquatint.

Over the next decade a series of opera- tions followed for cataract. They failed and by 1921 her vision had virtually disappeared. She lived another five years in darkness. I am going to include an essay on Cassatt in the book on which I am working, Creators, because like Emily Dickinson, whom I also include, she had to nourish her creative spirit amid difficulties and lack of encouragement (Degas and Pissarro notably excepted). The task of a woman trying to create art nobly and conscientiously has always been hard, and it is not much easier even today. I sup- pose Bonnard's wife counted herself lucky to be able to spend so much time in the bath while he painted her, even though the water grew horribly cold.