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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Lady at the Tea Table” by Mary Cassatt

"Lady at the Tea Table" by Mary Cassatt

“Lady at the Tea Table” by Mary Cassatt

“Lady at the Tea Table” by Mary Cassatt depicts Mary Dickinson Riddle, Cassatt’s mother’s first cousin, seated at a table set with a tea service. The tea set is gilded blue-and-white porcelain from Canton, modern-day Guangzhou, China. The painting exemplifies Cassatt’s impressionist style. The emphasis is placed on the subject’s contrasting outline, and the subject’s jewellery echoes the gold gilt on the tea service. Similarly, the faint blue hues used in the background draw the eye to the deeper blues of Riddle’s eyes and the porcelain.

The relative simplicity of the painting’s design is also in contrast to the elaborately detailed art of the porcelain tea set. The tea set was a gift to Cassatt’s family from Riddle’s daughter, and in turn, this portrait was painted by Cassatt as a gift for the Riddle family. Unfortunately, Riddle’s daughter disliked the painting because of the way her mother’s nose was portrayed. Thus the painting was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Cassatt in 1923.

Old China Trade from Canton

The Old China Trade refers to the early commerce between the Qing Empire (which lasted until 1912) and the United States under the Canton System. The Canton System restricted maritime trade to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) and represented the beginning of Trade relations between the United States and East Asia, including eventually U.S. – China relations.

Chinese export porcelain included a wide range of Chinese porcelain that was made exclusively for export to Europe and later to North America. The export wares of the 18th century were typically teawares and dinner services, often blue and white decorated with flowers, pine, prunus, bamboo or with pagoda landscapes, a style that inspired the willow pattern.

Highly decorative Canton porcelain was produced throughout the 19th century, but the quality waned. By the end of the century, blue and white wares were produced in large quantities, and almost every earlier style and type was copied into the 20th century. In modern times, historic Chinese export porcelain is popular with the international fine arts market, though recently less so than wares made for the historic domestic Chinese market.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 – 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Pennsylvania but lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.

Cassatt enjoyed the wave of feminism that occurred in the mid-1800s, allowing relatively more accessible educational opportunities and she became an outspoken advocate for women’s equality, campaigning with her friends for equal travel scholarships for students in the 1860s, and the right to vote in the 1910s. As a successful, highly trained woman artist who never married, she portrayed women and mothers with dignity and the suggestion of a more in-depth, meaningful inner life. Cassatt objected to being stereotyped as a “woman artist” and actively supported women’s suffrage.

Lady at the Tea Table

  • Title:                Lady at the Tea Table
  • Artist:              Mary Cassatt
  • Year:                1883–85
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:     29 x 24 in. (73.7 x 61 cm)
  • Museum:         Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Mary Cassatt

Reflections

  • “Acceptance, under someone else’s terms, is worse than rejection.” – Mary Cassatt
  • US-China Trade started shortly after the end of the US Revolutionary War.
  • US-China Trade relationships have always been complicated.

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“It is as well not to have too great an admiration for your master’s work. You will be in less danger of imitating him.”
– Mary Cassatt

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Photo Credit: Mary Cassatt [Public domain]

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