Beholding the blasé child here, it's easy to smile. Who hasn't been that bored, even if not while so well attired? You might recognize American artist Mary Cassatt's most popular painting, yet few know the secrets behind Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.
1. It broke from the traditions of child portraits.
Art historian Petra Chu has described the 1878 painting as "a radically new image of childhood" because Little Girl in a Blue Armchair dared to show a child being a child, slouched and arguably petulant. In short, it was a far cry from the many, many paintings that portrayed children as living dolls or picture-perfect cherubs.
2. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair is a great example of Cassatt's signature style.
Cassatt once wrote, "I love to paint children. They are so natural and truthful." The naturalism seen in this little girl's lounging became a defining characteristic of her later paintings of ballerinas, women and children.
3. It shows influence from the French Impressionists.
Cassatt's use of vivid colors and her apparent brushstrokes mirrored the style of the independent painters she'd befriended during her stints in Paris. Together these mavericks would collectively be characterized as Impressionists. To that end, it is believed Little Girl in a Blue Armchair made its debut at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in 1879 with the title Portrait de petite fille.
4. Edgar Degas painted part of the piece.
The Pennsylvania-born Cassatt and Impressionist titan Edgar Degas made an odd couple. She was an affluent American and outspoken suffragist. He was a Frenchman 10 years her senior who frequented brothels and once declared women didn't understand style. Nonetheless, the pair became close friends and collaborators.
Cassatt once referred to Degas making a contribution to Little Girl in a Blue Armchair in a letter to a friend. More than 130 years later, a patch of brush strokes inconsistent with the rest of the piece confirmed this collaboration. Infrared scanning gave further details and revealed that Degas gave the room a corner where once there was a flat wall.
5. Degas also helped cast the girl.
Cassatt’s model was the daughter of a friend of Degas. Her name, sadly, is lost to history.
6. This collaboration is not proof of a tryst between the artists, though.
Many historians and critics have speculated on the close relationship between Cassatt and Degas over the years, debating whether it was one of mentor/protégé, mutually respecting peers, or lovers. However, curator Kimberly Jones has determined, "There’s nothing (to suggest the pair were romantically involved). No sly comments, no wry observations in letters, no asides. If something were going on, somebody would have said something. Artists are terrible gossips."
Jones added, "(Cassatt) was already risking her reputation, just by being an artist and by hanging out with these crazy impressionists. If there had been even one whiff of impropriety, she wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a painter."
7. The painting is smaller than you might think.
Perhaps it’s the depth of field created by the corner and those far-flung bits of furniture, but Little Girl in a Blue Armchair looks like it's been painted on a grand canvas. In fact, it measures 89.5 x 129.8 cm, roughly 3 by 4¼ feet.
8. The puppy pictured is a Brussels Griffon.
It's believed the American artist first saw this Belgian toy breed while visiting Antwerp in 1873. As a gift, Degas gave her the pictured pup, Baptiste. Also called Batty, the dog would be not just her muse, but also Cassatt's constant companion for the rest of its life.
9. Japanese prints were an influence on the painting’s staging.
A printmaker herself, Cassatt collected Japanese prints and drew inspiration from their patterns and asymmetric structures. It's believed that urged her choice to place her subject off center, encircled by the turquoise of that bold furniture. Further nods to Japanese art can be seen in the way the forms are tilted up, and the way the top of the image seems cropped, cutting off the tops of the chairs.
10. The girl's fashion was on point.
Sure, the outfit loses something in the slouching, but the white dress with lace details and Tartan shawl with matching socks and hair bow were the height of children's fashion of this time.
11. A recent, careful cleaning has restored Girl in a Blue Armchair to its original glory.
The varnish on the painting had turned yellow over decades, giving the whole painting a jaundiced appearance. But once this was delicately stripped away, the colors Cassatt intended could be seen for the first time in generations.
12. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair was not instantly adored.
In 1878, the piece was rejected by the Paris Exposition Universelle, the city's third World's Fair. "I was furious," Cassatt wrote in a letter. "At that time this appeared new and the jury consisted of three people of which one was a pharmacist!"
13. Little Girl has become quite the traveler.
The painting was in private hands until 1983, when American philanthropists Paul and Bunny Mellon donated it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Since then, the museum has loaned the painting to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The National Gallery in London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston—just to name a few. With each new destination the painting has visited, the love for Cassatt's daring portrait has grown.
14. Cassatt & Little Girl in a Blue Armchair have been celebrated as feminist.
In 2006, feminist academic Germaine Greer argued that Cassatt's rejection of cuddly clichés in depicting children and their mothers was revolutionary. This painting and Cassatt's other works dared to capture these marginalized people as they are, not as ideals of innocence or maternal bliss.
15. Little Girl in a Blue Armchair's place in Impressionism's history has been challenged.
In the spring of 2015, the National Gallery in London mounted a Paul Durand-Ruel exhibition by promoting the art dealer as the founder of Impressionism. Art historian Griselda Pollock decried this characterization as undermining the Impressionist movement that arose from the work of independent artists and erasing Cassatt and her female peers from the movement's creation.
The show meant to exhibit the paintings Durand-Ruel had bought as a means to show how he shaped Impressionism as a brand. But Pollock points out, "Durand-Ruel bought as many works by Mary Cassatt as Edgar Degas. But in the exhibition, there is only one painting by Mary Cassatt: The Child’s Bath … This virtual absenting of the work of Mary Cassatt flies in the face of a key fact about the Impressionist exhibiting group: that it was the first affirmatively and consistently egalitarian art movement."