Mary Cassatt painted Sara Holding a Cat, circa 1907-08, during her final, and most serious, exploration of the theme of the single child. Cassatt received much acclaim for her pictures of this subject, returning to the theme throughout her career and investigating it in various mediums. "In the course of revising her approach to the mother and child theme Cassatt embarked on a series of pastels, drawings, and drypoints of children that preoccupied her for the rest of her working career. She had painted children many times before, but there had always been an obvious incentive, either a portrait commission or contact with her young nieces and nephews. This series seems to have had no such motivation." (N.M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 125) Sara Holding a Cat is a touching portrayal of a young girl's tender bond with her feline companion and a superb example of Cassatt's mature paintings of children.
The year 1901 marks a significant shift in Cassatt's style due in large part to her travels with her close friends, affluent American collectors Louisine and Harry Havemeyer. Cassatt had begun working closely as an art advisor to the couple in the 1890s and she continued in this role with increasing frequency after the turn of the century, aiding the collectors in their endeavors to acquire works by both historic and modern masters. In the spring of 1901 the couple invited Cassatt to travel with them to Italy and Spain, in pursuit of important paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The artist's renewed exposure to such works as those by Titian, El Greco and Sandro Bernini was not only a catalyst for increased productivity, but also for stylistic changes which would be evident for the remainder of her career. According to Nancy Mathews, "The trip...had a great impact on her own art. She set to work as soon as she got back to Paris and wrote with the mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty with which the immersion in the old masters had left her: 'All day long I work! I am wild to do something decent after all the fine things we have seen.'" (Mary Cassatt, p. 265) Sara Holding a Cat demonstrates the heightened attention to fabric and texture and the more thoroughly worked and vibrant surface of Cassatt's mature style.
Similarly significant was Cassatt's choice, after 1900, to use the same models repeatedly. The artist preferred to use as models children from Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, the village near her country home, Beaufresne, fifty miles northwest of Paris and in 1901 she began to frequently employ Sara, the young golden-haired girl depicted in the present painting, who according to Adelyn Breeskin, was a granddaughter of one of the former presidents of the French Republic, Emile Loubet. (Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 150) The sweetness of Sara's face, the ethereality of her features, and her reportedly good-natured demeanor evidently made her a favored model for Cassatt during these years and she was the subject of many of the artist's works from the period including both single and group portraits such as Sara in a Green Bonnet (circa 1901, The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.) and Children Playing with a Dog (1907, private collection).
While it is important to stress that Cassatt's works of this period are compositions rather than portraits, by repeatedly utilizing the same models, "she attempted to achieve an intimacy and familiarity with her subjects, as found in her earlier family portraits." (E.J. Bullard, Mary Cassatt: Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, p. 68 ) During this period Cassatt also took great care in deliberately assembling her compositions: "She selected her models and set up situations in her studio that she could examine and paint a representation, a mise en toile, a composition in the old academic sense, and not just a casually observed or spontaneously formed scene." (Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women, p. 16)
In addition to the theme of the single child, Sara Holding a Cat also touches on another leitmotif of Cassatt's career, maternity. In the present work, the young girl imitates a mother's affectionate hold of an infant in her gentle, caring embrace of the kitten and there is an affected maturity in her gaze that captures the concept of "playing mother." As in Children Playing with a Dog, this is simultaneously endearing and a vehicle for social commentary, "To some extent Cassatt's exploration of the child-not the baby-in adult costume, pose and expression reflects aspects of early-twentieth-century psychology, absorbed by Cassatt in her wide reading of sociological, psychological, and parapsychological literature." (Mary Cassatt, p. 125) This alludes to women's influence in the domestic realm and, as Nancy Mowll Mathews suggests in regard to the frequent use of mirrors and grooming motifs in the later works, "can be read as suggesting women's responsibility for the improvement of their children and, by implication, for the improvement of society itself. Cassatt's firm conviction, often articulated, that women were the primary civilizing force in society and that they could have this broader impact only if they were given a voice inspired her strong support of the American women's suffrage movement." (Mary Cassatt, p. 125)
The stylistic maturity of Cassatt's later works, of which Sara Holding a Cat is a lovely example, met with great acclaim from critics, dealers, collectors and students on both sides of the Atlantic. The artist's broad international appeal during this period was a testament to the fact that, "Although she worked throughout her entire career in France, her art is indeed expressive of the vitality which characterized the sturdy American temperament of her own epoch. She fused these thoroughly native qualities with a deep appreciation and thorough knowledge of the painting tradition of France, significantly enriching her life and art." (A.D. Breeskin in The Knoedler Galleries, The Paintings of Mary Cassatt, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1966, n.p.)
This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Sara in a Green Bonnet, ca. 1901. Oil on canvas, 16 5/8 x 13 5/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC Art Resource, NY.
Photograph of Beaufresne, September 1910. Courtesy of the Archives Durand-Ruel, Copyright Durand-Ruel & Cie.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Children Playing with a Dog. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 29 in. (100.3 x 73.7 in.) Private Collection. Christie's images.