Mary Casatt’s Mother About To Wash Her Sleepy Child And Georgia O’ Keeffe’s Horses Skull And Pink Rose.
Memorandum to the Honorable U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
Your Excellency,I am honored to be of service, in selecting two appropriate paintings for use In the Embassy at Baghdad. After due thought and consideration, I have selected two paintings for this purpose. The first is titled “Mother about to wash her sleepy child” by the artist Mary Cassett.1 The second is by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and is titled “Horse’s skull and pink Rose”. I believe these paintings will serve to express American talent and embellish the surroundings in the Iraqi embassy.
Mary Cassett was the only woman painter represented in a group of impressionist painters in late nineteenth century Paris4. She was one of the rare women artists who gained international recognition in their lifetime2, being one of the few American impressionist painters who has adopted this bright, sunny style of painting, distinctive in its use of bright colors and the technique of painting through the use of numerous dots. Her friendship with the impressionist painter Degas meant that she gained an entry into the art world of Paris.7 She exhibited her work with the impressionist painters, even as she retained her individuality.9 Critics have dismissed her work as that of a soft, wimpy painter of babies, however others view her as the painter of modern women, expressing her creativity freely, undaunted by the august assembly of impressionist painters such as Manet, Degas and Coubert who were her contemporaries5. In fact, when Mary Cassatt painted a mural in Chicago in 1892, Andrew Mellerio declared: “In all sincerity it must be said that at the present time, Miss Cassett may be, with Whistler, America’s only artist of lofty, personal and distinguished talent.”10. Mary Cassatt represents uniquely American talent in the international arena during an age that was dominated by the European masters.
This particular painting titled “Mother about to wash her sleepy child” is an expression of a mother’s love for her child.3 It symbolizes the highest achievement of a woman – the love of a child11. It is a simple, beautiful painting of a woman holding a sleepy baby in her arms but in its essence, it communicates the purity of love itself. The innocent, tender love of a child for its mother is reciprocated by the pure, special,unique caring of a mother’s love as portrayed in this painting.6 The manner in which their bodies are enclosed in a circular fashion and the loving interlocking gaze of mother and child create an atmosphere of intimacy that reaches out to touch every viewer12. From her study of Japanese prints and her apprenticeship with the impressionist painters, Mary Cassett learnt the value of background as a contributing factor towards enhancing the value of the painting and this is why she creates a tension between the foreground and background, which helps to change a viewer’s perception of the painting.8
In a war torn area such as Iraq, where numerous families have lost loved ones, in a country where people are engaged in the process of building their lives, nothing could be more relevant than the theme of a mother’s love, which is universal. Mary Cassatt is a uniquely American painter and a symbol of our equality with the great European masters. While her work represents American pride and creativity, it also reaches out to people of other nations with the message of rebuilding and reconstruction, through love. In the midst of all the anti-American sentiment in Iraq at the present time, this painting serves to remind every viewer that the human race knows no boundaries and a mother’s love spans continents. It would serve to remind those who come with animosity that what is required in a war torn country is not more strife but the soothing balm of love and friendship. This painting will spell hope and renewal to all those who visit the embassy – through the work of a quintessential American artist . It represents freedom for all the oppressed, because it is a work done by a woman in a generation ruled by men. Mary Cassatt is a beacon for all women – a symbol of the enduring nature of true talent which overcomes all odds to emerge triumphant.
The second painting I shall recommend is also the work of a woman – one who declared: “When I was twelve years old, I knew what I wanted–to be an artist.”13 The clarity and vision which the artist possessed at the precocious age of twelve translates into her paintings, which are simple and direct. The very simplicity and unusual combination she presents in her paintings have classed her with surrealist painters.14 As a child, Georgia was a strong minded, independent girl and this streak of independence and strength shines through in her paintings. She is an exceptional American artist, who states that she drew things big so that people would notice. She represents an emerging wave of new, individualistic, surrealist painters of the late nineteenth century. Her subjects are simple, her lines bold and striking and she is one of the most popular American artists. Perhaps part of the fascination for her work lies in the “inviolate independence of spirit in pursuing [her] arts, the wholeness of [her] gifts of the imagination.” 15 That same fiery streak of independence propels the artist to explore unconventional themes through the use of conventional objects.
For example, the painting titled: “Horse’s skull and pink rose” is an unusual combination of bones and flowers. She was intrigued by the skulls she came across during her visits to New Mexico and her frequent use of them suggests a fascination with capturing the reality of the skull – its very inner essence.16 The use of skulls is a representation of the harsh reality of death and destruction on the American landscape. This particular painting is unusual and arresting, in that it combines this representation of death with the fresh bloom of a flower – a pink rose. Georgia O’Keefe explains why she used flowers in her painting as follows: “…….when someone came to the kitchen door. As I went to answer the door, I stuck a pink rose in the eye socket of a horse’s skull. And when I came back the rose looked pretty fine, so I thought I would just go with that.”17 Georgia O’Keeffe was influenced by the idea that a work of art represented the artist’s personal feelings and emotions and that the best way to express those inner feelings was through unusual combinations of light and dark, line and color, offering an alternative to imitating realism.18 The artist experimented boldly with unusual shapes, sizes and colors in her paintings, most notably through the use of unusual combinations, such as that depicted in this particular painting. It is a notable example of striking talent and individuality in an American painter and symbolizes an era where freedom was setting in and where streaks of independence were asserting themselves in people all over the land. Through her painting, Georgia exhibits the same streak of independence and the desire to express one’s own individuality which characterized an era in American history.
This painting would have particular relevance in the U.S. embassy in Iraq. When questioned about why she used bones and skulls in her paintings, Georgia O’Keeffe replied: “The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable and knows no kindness with all its beauty “19 In the desert land that is Iraq, the image of death combined with life that is afforded by the unusual combination of the horse’s skull and the pink rose in this painting seems particularly apt. It is a sign of life – the life spark that still burns fiercely in the desert land of Iraq, irrespective of the ravages of war. This arresting painting is eloquent in its unusual image presentation and symbolizes that peculiar dichotomy that characterizes life. It is a reminder to all who visit the embassy, of the fierce individuality and unusual talent possessed by the American people. It represents the spirit of independence of both the Iraqis and the Americans and any other race of people that visits the embassy. If the skull is viewed as the sign of death and destruction, then the rose represents the life that still blooms therein. Although the horse’s skull creates an unnerving image of stripped, clean, calmness which in itself creates a menacing air, yet it is also possible to view the skull as the triumphant symbol of a tribute to the horses of the American landscape and thus provides a message of triumph in the very spirit of a pioneer.20
I believe both these paintings are uniquely American – symbols of their times. Yet, they both have particular relevance for the Iraqi landscape as well and could well impart the message of hope and new life amidst destruction, to all the nations of the world.
- Cassatt, Mary. “Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child” (1880)
- Claxton, Mae Miller. (2003). Untamable texts. The art of Georgia O’Keeffe and Eudory Welty. The Missisippi Quarterly. 2003, Vol 56
- Erbolato-Ramsey Christiane and Houzé , Annick (2000). The Women Impressionists: A Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.. 2000, p
- Frascina, Francis, Blake, Nigel Briony Fer, Garb, Tamar and Harrison, Charles. (1993). Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century“. The Open University, New Haven, CT & London, England.
- Getlein, Frank (1980). Mary Cassatt: Paintings and Prints. Cross River Press, Ltd, New York.
- Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman” by Judtih A. Barter.
- Pollock, Griselda.(1998). Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women. Thames and Hudson, New York
- Winter, Jeannette. (1998). My name is Georgia. Silver Whistle Publishers.
1 Cassatt, Mary. “Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child” (1880)
4 Women impressionist painters : 1840-1927
2 Erbolato-Ramsey Christiane and Houzé , Annick (2000). The Women Impressionists: A Sourcebook.
Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 2000, p 9
9 Ibid, p 17
5 Pollock, Griselda.(1998). Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women. Thames and Hudson, New York
10 Ibid, p 35
3 Getlein, Frank (1980). Mary Cassatt: Paintings and Prints. Cross River Press, Ltd, New York.
11 Ibid, p 36
6 Frascina, Francis, Blake, Nigel Briony Fer, Garb, Tamar and Harrison, Charles. (1993). Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century”. The Open University, New Haven, CT & London, England.
12 Ibid, p 26
8 From “Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman” by Judtih A. Barter.
13 Winter, Jeannette. (1998). My name is Georgia. Silver Whistle Publishers.
15 Claxton, Mae Miller. (2003). Untamable texts. The art of Georgia O’Keeffe and Eudory Welty. The Missisippi Quarterly. 2003, Vol 56.