Embracing the bridge idea

All art is bridge building -- a movement from the mind's horizon over into the shared world, from apprehended thoughts into solid creations. How many of these bridges span the life and the work of Mary Cassatt: a daring woman from America's Victorian period, and one of the world's great artists.

The first crossing, for any young American artist in the mid-19th century, was a predictable one: a voyage to Europe to study the Great Masters. Our country had no public art collections at the time, and only the cultural capitals on the Continent could supply the necessary link with history. This would have been an unremarkable choice for any painter . . . exceptm a woman. Mary Cassatt came from a prominent family in proper Philadelphian society. A woman could take an interestm in the arts, of course; but it was disgraceful for her to pursue such a wanton and competitive career.Mary's will crossed the gulf of society's outrage and her parents' fear.

After study in Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Holland, she made Paris her home -- a city that would remain the center of the art world for a half century to come. She copied the great works in the Louvre, but was much influenced by a young group of contemporary painters working in Paris who called themselves the Independents. This circle scorned the stultifying restrictions of the Academy and the official Salon Exhibitions. Mary was attracted to the bright, vivid, energetic paintings of these men, and slowly allowed her own palette to brighten and her subject matter to reflect the simpler experiences of her feminine world. These Independents -- or "Impressionists," as the art critics ridiculed them -- relied on the freedom of the eye, the brush, and the spirit as the guideline for their canvases. Her work was soon recognized by their leader, Edgar Degas, and she was invited to join their fourth group exhibition. "I accepted with joy," she later said. "Now I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I took leave of conventional art. I began to live."

Degas would become her life long mentor and friend. He advised, and even assisted, on some of her early works more important, he introduced her to new possibilities of personal style and expression. In bridging the great division between Victorian formalism and the new art, she became the only American artist within this French circle. And because of Mary's enthusiasm, her closest friend , Louisine Elder Havemeyer, purchased a Degas pastel: the first Impressionist painting to come to America.

The Impressionists helped to restore the personal perspective -- both the human scale and the common life experience -- as viable subject matter for an artists' explorations. Again and again in her paintings and pastels, Mary Cassatt would express her own particular vision: the world of women and children , the home and garden and theater. Other artists warned her that the repetition of her "mother and child" subjects would be considered overly sentimental. But the artist chose to portray in these secular madonnas the most delicate, the most enduring, of personal relationships.

Studying a painting like "Mother and Child," we quickly see that composition and color are bridges that allow even the most personal impression to assume universal design. The solidness of the forms, the harmonies of the pastel colors, create a mood that floods the room. Immediately we are touched by the awesomely quiet presence of the work.

But look at all the humanm bridges within this canvas! The largest of them is still lighter than these feathered pastel strokes: an embrace. The rough-sketched swing of the mother's arms, the cradled child, seem to grow from each other. The light shapes of their bodies are held in unison by the dark crowns of their hair. The child and mother grip each other uncompromisingly. Yet, a truly loving embrace weighs one ounce less than sunshine.

The next bridge is lighter still: a look, from one soul to another. The child leisurely studies her mother, measuring with its eyes and the pressure of its brow. The babe innocently perceives an encompassing love, unconditional, inexhaustible. This trust -- a weightless, fragile construction -- allows the heaviest of materials to ride across its span.

There is one more bridge here, a breath's lessm than weightless: the mother looks out into space -- a soul gazing at itself. The woman's quiet meditation consumes us with its peace. Whether consciously or unconsciously, she has placed herself in that moment when the heart's voice is clear and strong and larger than all circumstance. Watching, we can't help loving her for her love.

Within Cassatt's brisk strokes of color, her gently paired forms, a curious magic is accomplished. The smallest human gesture reveals a surprising emotional depth. In her painted rooms -- as in our own world -- there is a constant potential for the heart's release, the hearths crossing. When we approach the world with open eyes and a measure of wonder, it is our own clarity that completes the arc.

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