Cassatt pastel among Carnegie Museum of Art's additions

| Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

A significant early pastel drawing by Pittsburgh-born painter Mary Cassatt tops a treasure trove of new works acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art last year.

Also among the bounty: a pair of exquisite cut-glass decanters manufactured in the early 1800s by the Pittsburgh glass firm of Bakewell, Page & Bakewell for U.S. President James Monroe; a rare gilt papier-mache pianoforte from the 1860s, and a sculpture by Franz Erhard Walther.

The drawing of a woman holding a child is the first work on paper by Cassatt in the museum collection, which includes one oil painting and about 20 prints.

Amanda Zehnder, assistant curator of fine arts at the Carnegie, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Cassatt, who was born May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, now the North Side.

The work, which measures 28 34 inches by 23 12 inches, is large for a pastel. The figures are life-size and rendered with sharply defined edges. The woman is identified as "Mathilde" in the title of the work, "Mathilde Holding Baby, Reaching out to Right" (1889).

"It is quite big," she says. "Not that there aren't others of similar size, but the emphasis here is that a lot of pastels are small and sketchy, and this is a large, fully-realized work. It has quite a lot of wall presence."

The Cassatts left Pittsburgh when Mary was 4, eventually settling in Philadelphia. The pastel was created after Mary Cassatt moved to Paris, where she exhibited with the French Impressionists and forged a close friendship with Edgar Degas. The exuberant colors and confident strokes of the pastel represent the work of an artist hitting her stride.

"It's the middle of (her) actual career as an artist," Zehnder says. "But it's sort of the beginning of her really focusing on this subject. She realized she was good on this subject." Cassatt may have specialized in paintings of women and children in part because women of her social rank couldn't frequent cafes, theaters, dance halls and other public places as freely as men.

The painting was purchased at auction this summer at Christie's in London. It will make its public debut May 12 at the Carnegie, when it will be part of an exhibit titled "Impressionism In A New Light: From Monet to Stieglitz." The exhibit runs through Aug. 26.

The papier-mache pianoforte was exhibited in the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. Instead of using wood, artists laminated and molded paper. The instrument, about the size of a conventional spinet piano, features Moorish arabesques, mother-of-pearl inlay, a gild and lacquer patina, pierce fretwork and reverse-painted glass.

The Carnegie also has acquired 23 pieces of ceramics and furniture that were donated by Deena and Jerome Kaplan of Bethesda, Md. Among the pieces is a ceramic figure, "Grandma with Baseball Player," by Viola Frey. Also new to the collection: a contemporary daguerreotype of the inauguration of President Barack Obama by Jerry Spagnoli.

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