The Boating Party
Mary Cassatt decided to become an artist at age sixteen, when most women of her era and social status were looking forward only to marriage. Defying convention, she studied art in Philadelphia before heading to Europe and settling in Paris, where she remained for most of her life. As a woman, Cassatt was not permitted to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts, the leading art academy in France, but she found private instruction and educated herself by copying paintings in the Louvre Museum. Years later, she recalled that her life had changed when she met the artist Edgar Degas, who invited her to join the Impressionist circle. Partly because women were not welcome in the Paris cafés where the Impressionists often discovered their subject matter, she specialized in domestic paintings, particularly of mothers and children.
In the late 1880s, when Cassatt was well established in her career, she fell under the influence of Japanese prints and dramatically altered her own style of painting. Abandoning the feathery brushwork, pastel colors, and insubstantial forms of Impressionism, Cassatt began to create bold, unconventional patterns of flat color and solid forms. The Boating Party, painted on the south coast of France, exemplifies the change. Rather than attempting to capture a fleeting visual impression, Cassatt arranged abstract shapes in a shallow space using saturated areas of color that may have been inspired by the brilliant Mediterranean light. To heighten the decorative effect, she flattened the scene, placing the horizon line at the top of the composition in Japanese fashion. From our unusual vantage point, the three figures look like paper dolls pasted on a vivid background.
14-A Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), The Boating Party, 1893/1894. Oil on canvas, 357⁄16 x 461⁄8 in. (90 x 117.3 cm.). Chester Dale Collection. Image © 2006 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The Boating Party is among Cassatt’s most ambitious canvases. The composition is controlled by visual rhymes. The boat’s yellow benches and horizontal support echo the horizontals of the far-off shoreline. The billowing sail echoes the curve of the boat, creating a strong visual movement to the left that counter- acts the broad angle formed by an oar and the boatman’s left arm. Without the sail for balance, the large, dark figure of the boatman would weigh the picture to the right, and the boating party would lose its equilibrium.
At first glance, the painting seems a straightforward depiction of a nineteenth-century middle-class outing. Yet the artist included subtle hints about the figures’ relationships to one another that complicate this interpretation. Although Cassatt usually explored the familiar theme of mother and child, in this rendition the foreground is dominated by a male figure whose form is pressed against the picture plane and cast in silhouette by the sail’s shadow. In contrast, the female element of the composi- tion — the woman and her child — appears in soft, pastel shades that reflect the summer sunlight. The boatman, bending forward to begin another stroke of his oar, braces himself with one foot, while the woman maintains her stable position only by planting her feet on the floor of the boat. The sprawling baby, lulled by the rhythm of the water, looks liable to slide right off the mother’s lap. This slight awkwardness is a result of the boat’s movement, and the glances of the mother and child toward the boatman’s half-hidden features and back again suggest a complex, personal relationship, adding psychological tension to this pleasant excursion on a sunny afternoon.
Cassatt’s many paintings of mothers with children invariably recall the Renaissance theme of the Madonna and Child. Here, the woman appears enthroned in the prow of the boat, the child’s sun hat encircles its head like a halo, and the man bows before them like a supplicant. In referring to this traditional image, Cassatt invests an everyday scene of contemporary life with a sense of reverence — perhaps to express her view of women as powerful forces of creativity (and procreativity). Yet the painting’s meaning remains open to interpretation. Perhaps Cassatt touches on a truth that must have been evident to a woman painter who so closely observed the strictures of late nineteenth-century society; if the woman is elevated and admired, she may also be confined to the shallow space behind the oars, a passive participant without the power to control her own destiny.