THE ELIZABETH A. KECK COLLECTION
The present work depicts the artist’s favorite nephew, the son of her beloved brother Alexander. Robert first bonded with his expatriate aunt during the summer of 1880, when he visited the artist and his grandparents at their rented villa in Marly, in the countryside outside of Paris. Hoping to gain the affections of Robert and his three siblings, Cassatt recruited them to serve as her models. Although the young boy apparently challenged his aunt by refusing to sit still as she attempted to depict his likeness, Cassatt grew fond of Robert in particular. She hoped for a time that he would become an artist himself, and would occasionally allow him to join her on sketching trips.
During this first visit and the annual summer trips Alexander’s family made subsequently, Cassatt painted Robert on several occasions, both with his father and unaccompanied, as in the present work (fig. 1). Here Cassatt renders Robert’s features with careful attention, accurately portraying the physical attributes of his youth. The strong draftsmanship seen in the boy's face—a focus encouraged by her friend and mentor Edgar Degas—contrasts dynamically with the bold, strikingly gestural passages of fiery red, green and blue with which she completed the background. Robert’s gaze avoids the viewer, creating the impression that Cassatt has caught him in a natural state rather than in a scene she has orchestrated. By allowing the viewer a glimpse into the subject’s—and therefore her own—private world, Cassatt imbues her composition with an arresting sense of intimacy, and blurs the distinction between the private and the public spheres.
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