Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Timeless tenderness brightens a dim room

Clark Art Institute

WILLIAMSTOWN — Even though it is displayed in a dim room (to protect it from light damage) at the Clark Art Institute, the colors in this superb pastel by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) fairly leap out at you. The harmonies — green and red, blue and orange — are classic. But each hue, you feel, has been chromatically enriched not just by its color-wheel complements but by internal variations.

Cassatt’s orange robe, for instance (it looks to me like a kimono), is flecked with pinks and yellows. And the green band of what is presumably grass behind the figures is brightened both by the light gray paper showing through from beneath and by cloudy streaks escaping from the band of red.

And then, try, if you can, to imagine the picture itself without that band of red. The descriptive work it seems to be doing is negligible. (What in the real world could it possibly represent?) But its chromatic energy ignites the whole picture, turns it from being something familiar (another Cassatt mother and child) to something instantly arresting and quite unforgettable.

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But hold on. “Another Cassatt mother and child”? I don’t mean to take them for granted.

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Cassatt’s long series addressing this theme, by which she was increasingly preoccupied from the mid-1890s until cataracts forced her retirement from picture-making in 1915, is one of the great extended artistic endeavors of that era. I never tire of seeing them. Their strange amalgamations of traditionalism and modernity, and their timeless, exemplary tenderness, never cease to surprise.

Cassatt, like Degas — whose late, faceless bathers in cascading pastel colors stands in poignant counterpoint to Cassatt’s ruddy-faced moms — was very well trained in drawing and other techniques. And as with Degas, that training, and her own astonishing aptitude, helped make Cassatt’s various audacities (and her sex) more palatable to critics and collectors.

She received a Legion d’honneur in 1904, two years after making this pastel, and was described in 1909 as “the most eminent of all living American women painters.” Cut the qualifier “women” and the claim still sounds about right to me (although I suppose there was Sargent to reckon with, and Homer still had a year left in him. But enough of this reflexive ranking of artists. It’s bogus.)

The point is this: The look this mother is giving her baby, and the infectious liveliness of the girl’s face as she looks out of the picture; the way her profile intimately overlaps with the baby girl’s soft cheek; the slightly unkempt state of the mother’s hair; the flush in both their cheeks; and the image’s modernity — its freedom, that is to say, from religious dogma and from the exhausted rhetoric of foreshadowed, world-redeeming tragedy (the subtext of every traditional Virgin and Child) — make this one of the most affecting images of the tenderness between mother and child ever made.

Past Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.