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Not just a society painter

RECENTLY, while reading about an exhibition by an American artist who worked in Paris at the same time as Mary Cassatt, I was surprised to find Cassatt disparaged as one who only painted society women and their well-groomed children. It praised her less well-known contemporary for the inclusion of other types of people. The lithograph presented as proof of this assertion shows a French nursemaid, subserviently in the background wearing her required headgear with the flowing streamers, holding forward her small charge for the viewer's admiration. The tot was decked out in the latest finery of the period like a miniature fashion plate. The next day I went to the Newark Museum to look again at a favorite Cassatt painting, here reproduced.

The woman in a lace-covered lilac-hued dress is Mathilde Vallet. She was probably a young German country girl newly come to France when she was hired as a maid by the American painter establishing her home there. Some 40 years later, she was still with Cassatt as housekeeper and constant companion. They had been separated in all that time only by military order during World War I when Mathilde and a sister were expelled with all other German nationals.

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The boy is Robert Cassatt, the painter's nephew. Although his father was president of the then awe-inspiring Pennsylvania Rail-road and his mother was the niece of President Buchanan, there is no impulse on the artist's part to present him as a ''Blue Boy.'' Plainly dressed in a black jacket and sweater, he is a chubby, not particularly handsome child. Mathilde holds him in a firm, unsentimental embrace. It is plain that the two are good friends and both are unself-conscious about their friendship. They are painted with the sympathetic respect for their individ-ualities which Cassatt accorded to all her models.

There is, however, a basis for the ''society'' image this painter has in the United States. Born into a wealthy, conservative, socially prominent Philadelphia family, her decision to become a professional painter caused consternation or amusement in its members according to their varied temperaments. So conscious was she that her career was a radical departure from what was expected of a genteel 19th-century woman that, lest she cause the family any embarrassment, she signed only her given and middle names on the first canvas submitted to, and accepted by, the prestigious Paris Salon. As reasonable and patient as she was determined, Mary Cassatt won her family over to the recog-

cc16pufmrk,54lnition that she had also been born ''with such a passion for line and color,'' as she once put it.

It would seem that her devotion to her family and her resolve to maintain the outward conduct of her life in accord with their social values has contributed to the sense that she concentrated on well-to-do subjects. When her parents and sister came to live with her in France, she found, in her serene and practical way, that she could be immersed in both her art and her family if she made them her models and chronicled them in paint. So she depicted her mother reading the newspaper, with sister Lydia on a silken sofa, Lydia entertaining a friend at tea, her father on horseback, railroad tycoon brother Aleck at a desk, and portraits of assorted other relatives and friends. When the next generation, including Robert, came along, she lavished attention upon them. ''They adore her ,'' an in-law wrote about the children, who stayed with her at various times. But, all the while, the hardworking painter was developing and disciplining her art.

This small painting of Mathilde and Robert shows some aspects of that art which quickly earned her the respect of fellow artists like Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, and Gauguin. From across the museum gallery, the canvas is a simple design of color masses: black in the clothing of the boy, lilac dress, variegated green foliage, flat blue lake at upper right, all revolving around and enhancing the rosy flesh tones in the center focus. At a middle distance the almost monumental solidity of the forms and the presence of the two figures is striking. The faces are strongly modeled - healthy-looking, vital, very real people. A close-up examination reveals apparently swift, small brushstrokes in an Impressionist technique, with an astonishing number of hues and tints which build the animation of the faces and the subtle coloring of the forms. Some of the paint is very heavy impasto, but in some places the bare canvas shows.

As a French critic said of her art during her lifetime: ''This is not painting effete or involved or delicate to excess. . . . It is something younger , more simple and, especially, infinitely more bracing.''

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