Online Exclusive

From Four selections from COLOR PLATES part 4: Mary Cassatt

“Head of a Young Girl,” 1876, 12 34 x 9

The Salon rejected Head of a Young Girl because they felt the brushwork was undisciplined and that there was too much light on her canvas. “I accepted with joy that I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I despised conventional art. I began to live” (Cassatt).

From an aperture she has made in the Venetian blinds she watches leaves fall. The leaves are white and gold. The leaves are ice-blue and brown and fall steadily. Rain mists and each leaf shines as it falls. The leaves flicker silver. As the leaves fall—so many they are a wall—she sees herself. Her eye to the window pane; her self in the wet, falling leaves.
{My beloved husband is a voyeur. A marriage vow: I must become a voyeur also. For a time I watched what he watched and with his eyes. I began with my own self—as our love began with his gaze upon me. He came to my sister’s dinner party as a guest of a guest. He singled me out with his sight and looked at me often. With senses other than sight (all I really had, then), I knew I wanted him and so urged him to look at me, moved into his line of sight whenever possible. I served myself. Dish of squash in hand, I stretched across the table; water pitcher I leaned forward and poured. I didn’t think then I was beautiful and wouldn’t say I think so now.}
As much as she wants to see every leaf at once, she can only see the shape all the leaves make together. Only that static shape. The optical illusion of leaves moving made by a single image followed quickly by another single image and then quickly by another. She believes she learned to be a voyeur to know her husband better. In truth, she is a voyeur.
She resisted one of her marriage vows: to lust as her husband lusts. She refuses to be swept up. As she looks she puts distance between herself and what she sees. As if the longer she looks the more panes of glass form between her and the object of her gaze. Layers of glass like stacked microscope slides. Her eyes repel light.
{First, I became a voyeur of myself. I looked sideways into mirrors, double-mirrors, saw the small of my back, a flick of my long hair. Caught warped glimpses in dinnerware I kept highly polished. The hem of my skirt as it crept and bent, the bulge of an untailored collar at the back of my neck, tag up, caressing the invisible hairs at my nape. I watched myself dress for work, undress, undress, nude. I have seen so much of myself without thinking about what it is I see other than that I must keep seeing and when first I detected that need I knew I’d become as my beloved husband.}
She sees her self in the leaves. She sees her eye in the glittering leaves. Without opening the blinds further she is wholly reproduced by the leaves. A reflection. Head of a young woman. Then bust, then body.
{I learned not to primp too much, not to alter the allure of accident. What arouses my eye is the clot of lipstick on my lower lip, the wile of hair snuck out from behind my ear. Once a voyeur I became a voyeur of all. I hide myself and watch. The crick in the Venetian blinds, the blaze of the white line between door and jamb. Behind these frames is where I feel most myself.}
Thousands of leaves fall. Amid those leaves is her image. This engrosses her so intently she ceases to pay attention to the blinds and the window through which she sees. She leans up against the blinds. She presses her body into the blinds so that they part, revealing to the outside world lines of her body. She trembles. She pushes hard against the blinds and in turn the window and the window finally gives: the glass does not shatter, but pops free from the window frame, pops out onto the soft leaf-covered lawn. The glass does not break. The blinds cannot keep back the pressure she puts upon them and so she too falls into the yard. Tangled in the blinds she tumbles onto the glass pane and crushes the glass beneath her. Powdered into glimmering dust. She is panting and writhing, the strings of the blinds pull at her, tug and snap. Her body is hot with fascination at the self she sees against, amid the leaves. Her clothes are shredded in this violence; when she rises to her knees she is bare to the leaves. Unable to hold herself back, she plunges into her leaf-self. Seeing is important, but lust is important too. 


“Reading Le Figaro (‘When will this fearful slumber have an end?’),” 1878, 39 34 x 32

Soon after her parents here a symbol of her acclimation. “I hope you will be pleased … in fact I do not allow myself to doubt that you will be …” “… but hope that you will speak ‘right out in meeting’ if you are not—” “She was killed some months ago by the falling of a tree in Virginia.” —Robert Cassatt

My mother is a pretty picture of pale yellow and cream white in bright afternoon sun. The chain that hangs from her black framed glasses glitters. Her black hair shines. She sits with a newspaper open in her hands but she is asleep. The sun still keeps regular hours, but we are prey to sleep at any time. As are you. My mother sleeps in the chair by the big, brass mirror which reads all the news upside down. My old mother’s hand, bone and knuckle, skin taut and dry. Sleep is in all the news and there is something good to that: after all the catastrophes, self- inflicted, otherwise, it is only sleep that will undo us, we will sleep.
      Our inability to stay awake makes travel too dangerous; I cannot see you and that breaks my heart.
      A letter is like a newspaper and my letter is like the news. Written between sleep, about sleep.
      I knew I wasn’t immune to sleep the morning a vase of flowers withered on the sudden. Still morning, but not that morning or the next; I didn’t know what morning.
      Fires erased the suburbs, burned through factory-assembled colonials and press board ranch houses. Blaring smoke detectors and fire alarms were not loud enough to wake those asleep. After the electrical fires in the cities, charred and hollow buildings, mother and I began to keep most of our house unplugged. Our house, quiet and dark. We kept power only for the kitchen and the living room. You always loved our living room, you’d doze in the afternoon sun. We fall asleep on chairs and couches, on linoleum and carpets. We have food but I’m afraid we’ll starve to death. I’ve been writing this letter for days.
      Mother wakes. She reads about sleep, unsure for a moment what else to do; she stands and complains of terrible stiffness. We’ve stopped consulting the clock and the calendar, stopped trying to figure out when it is we are awake. Time is only too sad now. The fireplace is full of ashes, cold and damp. A mushroom sprouted in the ashes as if in an instant; and then a dozen more white fungi appeared.
      If we dreamed as we slept I’d feel as if we were at least having that second life, but we don’t and that’s sad too. More than sad.
      The living room is blue now.
      Mother fell out of her chair—when, I don’t know, nor how: did she rise to look out the window only to collapse, asleep again? I reach for my mother, wince at the sight of an open gash on her cheek, but before I can touch her old shoulder she is in her chair, crying, touching her face, and I’m on my back, on the floor. I say, “Mother?” Her cheek bone is broken. I wake, she’s asleep. The gash beneath her eye is infected, alive, first aid won’t be enough, but there is no other aid. We’re all helpless beneath the blank gaze of sleep.
      Mother sleeps more than I, now. I’m lonely, but I hope she won’t wake up because she screams when she’s awake.
      My skirt is wet with my own urine. My skirt is stiff, dried, the cotton cracks like old cardboard. For days, I change into a fresh skirt. Like a beaver working to keep its teeth ground, I gnaw at my fingernails; I clip my toenails when I can; my hair teases the small of my back, falls into my eyes. Moments are connected only by my actions.
      Here, in the country, the darkness outside is deep. I’m used to moving by the slight- light as the moon sets. Used to the numb trees and the spike darkness between. Animals come out of the forest and drop to the lawn, grass that has grown wild and high. Sleeping deer: these animals crash to the ground, their sleep-poses unnatural. There was a string of time during which I woke only in the small hours. After a while I could no longer imagine anything but hunger-ache and black grass and sleeping animals. A fox asleep next to my head. Broken-winged birds pepper every field. I hope some of the city remains and is brightly lit as cities are meant to be. I want us to be visible from space as long as is humanly possible.
      Mother is dead, her body by the fireplace. I am in the tall grass of the backyard. Newspapers have gathered around my body. A writing tablet finishes the hook of my hand. I’ll never see you again, and who will send this letter? How many of us write during our brief periods of wakefulness? Is there any reason to document the world’s great slumber? 


“Little Girl in a Blue Armchair,” 1878, 3514 x 5118

The impact of Degas and naturalism on Cassat’s work is dramatically apparent in this portrait of a child. The formality and conventional charm of the 1875 portraits of Mlle. E. C. and Eddie Cassatt have been replaced by an active pose and unexpected details of costume and setting. Predictably, the earlier portrait of Mlle. E. C. was accepted by the Salon jury, whereas the Little Girl in a Blue Armchair was rejected.

I remember Emily as the sort of child who used what came to her without question and with ease. A scarf, that afternoon. A scarf materialized on the floor of a closet, a forgotten cloth once belonging to Emily’s mother. She wore the plaid scarf around her waist.
      Emily sat on a chubby blue armchair. Against the blue of the chair her white Communion dress was a spark. She held a white grease pencil in her hand, held the pencil above her head; I watched as she traced an outline of her body onto the chair-back. Before I could find the mental wherewithal to tell her to stop, stop ruining the upholstery, a dog barked, I jumped. Emily slipped the grease pencil beneath her thigh, out of sight. Emily did not own a dog. Nor did her mother.
      “Hello, Katherine,” Emily said.
      I couldn’t locate the source of the bark; the furniture in that room, the sunny day-room, was placed but not arranged, and so made many hidden spaces. Behind Emily, against the far wall, was a blue couch, beside it a blue chair, and to my left another blue chair. The dog barked again and I saw him, a little terrier, ensconced on the chair to my left. How I’d missed him, I don’t know.
      “Whose dog is that?” Emily’s mother was no figure of authority, so I tried to be, but Emily usually charmed me away from any stern or overly-adult behavior. I loved her deeply, stupidly, and drove to her mother’s house once a week to spend time with Emily, not with her mother.
      “He belongs to a little boy who lives down the lane.”
      I knew very well that there was no boy. I approached the dog, let him sniff at my hand, patted him and pushed him aside so I could sit down. The dog clambered up the soft arm of the chair and, once I’d settled in, found a spot on my lap. The dog wore a collar with a name tag: Edward.
      “Edward,” I said. The dog shrugged his eyebrows.
      “Mom bought it for me,” Emily said. This too, untrue.
      “Did you name it?” I asked.
      “A noble name for a dog. Get the pencil out from under your leg.”
      Emily produced the pencil.
      “Have you ruined the furniture?” I asked.
      “No. Look.” She bounced off the chair and stepped aside. Left behind was a misshapen silhouette of Emily.
      “That won’t come off, you know,” I said.
      “It isn’t supposed to.”
      I put Edward on the floor and contemplated what to do about Emily’s graffiti. I turned the chair so it faced away from the door. “Your mother hardly ever comes in here,” I said.
      Emily said, “She never comes in here. This room is haunted and she’s terrified of ghosts.”
      Emily’s mother was out shopping. When I arrived that afternoon, she fixed us gin and tonics. When she was through with hers, she left. She and I had been roommates in college and our relationship remained remarkably the same.
      Emily said, “We should play astronauts.”
      “Where shall we go?” I asked.
      Emily pointed to the blue couch. “Pluto,” she said. She added, “I don’t think Pluto’s a real planet.”
      When I asked her why she thought Pluto wasn’t a real planet she told me that Pluto was solid ice and too small to be a planet. She explained, very thoroughly, why she was convinced there was life on Pluto. Had I been at a party, and had a man claiming to be a scientist told me what Emily told me, I would have been inclined to believe him. Her age and her inclination to invent was all that gave me cause to doubt her theory, and even still. Edward barked. We played astronauts for a long time. Finally, the umbilical attached to Emily’s space suit—the plaid scarf—unraveled, and she floated off into space. I explained how I could rescue her, but she said no, and that my plan was impractical. She said, “Save yourself.” She floated out of the day room, through a rectangle of sunlight, into the dark hallway. For a while—just long enough for me to wonder what was going on—Edward and I sat in the day room alone, waiting for Emily to return.
      The three of us fell asleep on the couch. When I woke, I saw Emily’s mother standing at the doorway of the room. I said, “We must have fallen asleep.” By the time I’d completed my sentence, Emily’s mother was gone. Edward followed when I carried Emily to her room. Just as I was about to leave, Emily said, “I found Edward in the woods.”
      A little less than a month later I went to visit Emily but found the house empty. Not everything was gone, but Emily and her mother, certainly, permanently. I called out their names. I walked around the house, through the partially empty rooms until I came to the day room, where all the blue furniture had been left.
      I pushed Emily’s chair, the chair marked with her white silhouette, across the polished hard wood floors; a trail of marks ground into the polish. At the front door, where I struggled to angle the chair in such a way as to allow its release, I realized the chair wouldn’t fit in my car. Nor, really, in my apartment. I lived in such a small apartment. I sat on the chair and stared out the front door, across the white stone drive, past my car and into the woods. The sun was lowering itself to the trees, black trees, leafless. On the other side of the sky, past a thick cloud of man-made satellites, were the planets, untrammeled planets, dust and ice planets. Emily’s mother had hitched herself to a new husband, I supposed, and when that unraveled or just got numb I’d receive another letter urging me to come for a visit. 

PLATES 29, 30, & 31

“Study for ‘At the Opera,’” 31516 x516; “Study for ‘At the Opera,’” 4 x 6; “At the Opera,” 1878, 32 x 26

The two studies for At the Opera (with two others whose whereabouts are unknown) form an unusually complete series of preliminary drawings leading up to a finished painting. A rare glimpse of Cassatt’s method of refining an idea into a finished composition. Individual sketches were made on sheets from pocketsize sketchbooks of the type used by Degas.

A woman watched an opera about torture. She long ago lost the thread of the opera’s narrative, her mind lost in the woven fabric of a black cloth sack. She sat alone in a mezzanine box. The view wasn’t ideal for seeing the opera, but at times the music shifted and filled the box, as if the performers were seated up in a dark corner, up somewhere near the woman’s left ear. The woman raised a pair of brass opera glasses to her eyes; by their magnification, she saw the grimace of the man forced to crouch naked on the stage. A wood pole and a triangle of rope kept his pose rigid. His face shone with sweat. His teeth. The woman unfolded her fan and stirred the air about her face.
      As she rested her opera glasses in her lap—the basket of her dress—she was distracted by a subtle change in the light on the wall to her left. A black rectangle, the size of a door, grew light, a little light, just a shade. She could not locate the edges of the rectangle, not exactly. When her eyes focused on any one segment of the rectangle’s black border, the border vibrated, became less of a border. How irritating this was to her mind. To her right, in a box like her own, sat a man and a woman, deeply engaged in the actions of the stage; the stage.
      A chorus of blindfolded men. A man, tied to a plank, was lowered head first into a bucket of dirty water. This water-boarded man sang gasps, choke and spit. A boy, held down with electrical tape, taped so tight he couldn’t avoid the blast of air blown up his nostrils, sang high pitched bursts. Their songs were swallowed by the chorus. A soldier kept time with his boots. The stage was littered with rope, this was set. The set. The curtains were rust-red razor wire.
      In the box to the right: the man scans the audience with his opera glasses; the woman sews.
      The rectangle on the wall was silver, now, silver like photo-silver, a silver gelatin print. Indeed, the silver developed, she thought, and as if the thought was transferred to the rectangle, an image began to develop. When she watched the rectangle on the wall to her left she was not watching the opera per se; the performance went on, endlessly. The woman fanned herself again. Raised her opera glasses again. A bare light bulb, a shining pear at the end of a black vine, dangled over a weeping boy. The bulb swung, pendulum-like, and crept closer and closer to the top of the weeping boy’s head. Eventually, the bulb would hit the weeping boy. The question on the minds of all in the audience: would the bulb shatter? And if it did, would the audience be left blind in the dark and the damp air? The image on the rectangle took shape. A man seated and blanketed by shadow. Not a man, a woman in a black dress.
      The woman studied the rectangle with her opera glasses. The opera’s libretto was covered with agitation. With non-words. The songs bordered cacophony. Voices in cement rooms and corridors, muffled voices, conversations barely overheard, monologues delivered in other languages. Food, masticated. What songs? Regurgitated. The image on the rectangle was her own image. As she had stared at the rectangle, the image of herself stared back. The man in the box to her right stared at her too. Through opera glasses, he watched her, to see if she would betray herself. The woman seated beside the man, the sewing woman, sweated as she stitched. On the stage below, members of the chorus piled on top of each other. Their robes opened; beneath their robes they were naked. They clambered over one another, a swarm. The man forced to crouch bit hard on a piece of hairy rope. His eyes squeezed shut.
      A wind filled the opera house. This was a breath from an enormous head.
      The man in the box to her right watched and he opened his mouth wide. He bared his teeth. He wet his teeth with his tongue. The sewing woman sewed quickly, pricking herself often. Finally, the sewing woman put down her needle. She pointed to the woman who still stared at the rectangle, who was mesmerized by her own likeness. The sewing woman had made a hood, using fabric from her own clothes.
      The woman asked, of course, “How did I end up here?”
      The bulb shattered against the weeping boy’s head. And yes, in the dark and the damp air.