PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF ELIZABETH GREEN ROMANO
Executed circa 1890 to 1893, Clarissa, With Her Hand to Her Ear, Turned Left, perfectly manifests Cassatt’s thoroughly modern approach to this traditional subject. Determined to forge a career as a painter, Cassatt arrived in Paris in early 1866. Although she initially studied with academic painters and regularly submitted her work to the Paris Salon, Cassatt struggled to conform to what she felt were the imitative conventions of official French art. She began to produce work that resolutely represented the world she knew, rather than attempting to emulate the masters of the past.
The modern spirit of her new work quickly garnered the attention of Edgar Degas, who in 1874 saw Cassatt’s submission to the Salon—a portrait titled Ida—and proclaimed, “It is true. There is someone who feels as I do.” (quoted in Mary Cassatt: An American Observer, 1984, n.p.) At Degas’ invitation, Cassatt was asked to join a group of painters called the “Independents,” and ultimately participated in four of their exhibitions between 1879 and 1886. Through her acquaintance with Degas, Cassatt not only gained access to the center of artistic modernism but also cultivated a lifelong reverence for drawing that undoubtedly contributed to the masterful draftsmanship persistent in her body of work.
Clarissa, With Her Hand to Her Ear, Turned Left, Cassatt portrays her subject in an especially intimate pose: Clarissa relaxes casually in a chair, her head resting on her hand and eyes downcast. She appears lost in contemplation, completely unaware in her self-absorption of the presence of any other person. Cassatt was attracted to the theme of the solitary female figure for the deep observation it provoked: Clarissa’s enigmatic gesture and facial expression invite viewers to speculate on the intentionally ambiguous nature of her thoughts. The simplified background highlights the lush and painterly qualities of Clarissa’s face and complexion, as the remainder of the composition is characterized by long, loose and free strokes of pigment. This contrast is characteristic of Cassatt’s work of the period, and demonstrates her unique adaptation of the traditional three-fourths length portrait.
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