Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family

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Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family photo
Shelburne Museum

Editorial Review

Stark Contrasts, Unexpected Similarities

By Michael O'Sullivan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 9, 2009

The holidays are over. The out-of-town guests have gone. Or maybe you have returned to your own home after a visit with dear ones far away. Do you miss 'em yet?

If so, a quick visit to the National Museum of Women in the Arts may get you through the withdrawal symptoms. The comforting pictures in "Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family" are all about those most intimate of bonds: the ones between kith and kin. In this season of cocooning and reconnecting, what could be more timely?

Or more tame?

That's what I thought, anyway. Celebrated, primarily, for her pictures of mothers and children in moments of tenderness -- bathing, nursing, embracing -- the American-born impressionist painter (1844-1926) is hardly known for pushing the envelope. Her art is pretty and warm but nothing you haven't seen before.

So why did I find myself looking at it in a new, or at least unexpected, light? The reasons have less to do with Cassatt herself than with her immediate next-door neighbor.

In the galleries adjacent to "Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family," you'll find a show called "Role Models: Feminine Identity in American Photography." It's cutting-edge stuff, filled with sexual politics and images that challenge and question the place of women and girls in today's world. And you can draw a straight line between some of those pictures and Cassatt's domestic Madonna-and-child scenes.

Here's where to start.

Look, for example, at the portrait of Cassatt's niece from about 1905, "Ellen Mary Cassatt in a Big Blue Hat," or at any of several other depictions of girlhood that the artist described less as renderings of specific people than as generic "portraits of childhood." Along with Cassatt's obvious affection for her subjects, you may see, as the wall text suggests, a kind of "frankness" in the rendering (one critic referred to the artist's "tendency toward the brutal").

Another label puts it this way: "The girls are dressed in contemporary fashion, sporting huge hats and elaborate bows which give their small figures an adult bearing." When I read that, something about it sounded familiar.

Now, cross the hall to "Role Models," and look for Sally Mann's 1980s photographs of girls from the series "At Twelve." You'll find that same frankness in Mann's "Juliet in the White Chair" and other photographs of prepubescent girls. And, yes, their small figures have an almost disconcertingly adult bearing.

You couldn't ask for a more felicitous, or less predictable, pairing than putting these two shows side by side. Separated, in some cases, by a century of art history, the works in each are only superficially a world apart.