On first glance, the paintings “Susan Comforting the Baby,” by Mary Cassatt, and “Young Woman Powdering Herself,” by Georges Seurat, may seem strikingly similar in theme, mood, color, and content. If the viewer considers the information that “Susan Comforting the Baby” was painted in 1881 and “Young Woman Powdering Herself” was painted just eight years later, one might even argue, and perhaps rightly so, that the paintings reflect the fact that Cassatt and Seurat were contemporaries who produced work in the period known as Impressionism. Neither of these observations would be unfeasible; however, they would fall short of providing the viewer with the insight that is necessary to identify the distinctions that exist between the two paintings, as well as the significance of these differences. For all of the similarities that Cassatt’s “Susan Comforting the Baby” and Seurat’s “Young Woman Powdering Herself” share, there are important differences as well, differences which only emerge under closer inspection.
Mary Cassatt was an American painter and Georges Seurat was a French painter; although Seurat’s life was much shorter that that of Cassatt, both produced an extensive and impressive oeuvre, and their paintings remain popular today, more than 100 years later. In “Susan Comforting the Baby” and “Young Woman Powdering Herself,” the viewer notices many similarities that reflect the influence of the dominant artistic movement of the day: Impressionism. First, both Cassatt’s and Seurat’s works are oil paintings, a medium which was most popular during their epoch. The use of oil paints permitted both artists to create textured works that were vivid, despite the muted palette of colors that these artists preferred. The texture of both paintings is easily visible under the excellent lighting of the museum’s exhibition space, and generates a sense of appreciation that would not be possible were the works viewed as reproductions in a book, as a poster, or online. This aspect of texture is an important element of the paintings because both works depict a woman in midst of an action or gesture; the texture, then, conveys a sense of movement that reinforces the paintings’ subjects.
The title of Cassatt’s painting explains its subject. Cassatt has portrayed a woman named Susan, and an infant, who is in a carriage. The baby is slightly agitated, as the viewer can determine not only from the title and the use of the word “comforting,” but also from the expression on the baby’s face and the gesture it is making, which evokes a sense of distress. Although Cassatt’s painting technique resulted in a piece in which figures and objects are not defined by sharp lines and edges, but are more blurred, the viewer can clearly see that the content of the painting does indeed reflect the subject as hinted at by the title. The woman has kneeled down beside the carriage so that her head is level to the child’s, and she appears to be talking to the baby, her mouth close to the child’s ear, and a comforting hand upon the baby’s stomach.
Although the baby is in need of comfort, there is nothing in the painting that is suggestive of immediate danger; the woman and child are set in the foreground of a bucolic scene, which appears as if it might be the patio of an upper class home or a sidewalk in a park. There is a short wall and some shrubbery, and a few flowers dotting the low-lying bushes. There are no other signs of life: no people, no animals; in short, there are no distractions to draw the viewer’s attention away from the people, who are Cassatt’s interest and preoccupation.
Like Cassatt, Seurat titled his painting directly and unequivocally so that the viewer would have no doubt as to what, exactly, he or she is seeing. A woman sits at a vanity and is in the process of powdering herself. Her hair is already swept up and she has put a watch or a bracelet on her left wrist, but she appears to not be fully dressed yet, with just a camisole covering her chest. In the painting, Seurat has portrayed his subject in mid-gesture, suggesting movement. The powder puff, held in the fingertips of the woman’s right hand, is poised in mid-air between the vanity and her chest, having been dipped into the talc and on its way, now, to the last step in the woman’s beauty routine. As in Cassatt’s painting, Seurat minimizes any distractions. There are no other objects in the painting besides those that have already been mentioned, and those objects do nothing to take away from the scene; rather, they add to it. The focus is entirely on the woman who is powdering herself.
In both Cassatt’s and Seurat’s paintings, then, the astute viewer notices several commonalities with respect to their subjects. First, the lack of distractions and decorations serves to draw the attention of the viewer directly to the subject: the woman who is comforting the child, in the case of Cassatt, and the woman who is powdering herself, in the case of Seurat. The positioning of the subjects also serves to insist that the viewer focus on the women; the women occupy the foreground and the backgrounds of each painting are devoid of any major details that compete for the viewer’s consideration. Second, by positioning the subjects in this manner and directing the gaze of the viewer so expertly, both Cassatt and Seurat share a certain achievement: they succeed in paying attention to and portraying the mundane activities of daily life in which women, in particular, engage. In doing so, the artists elevate these ordinary activities into a subject that is worthy of the viewer’s interest. By portraying ordinary scenes from daily life, Cassatt and Seurat are calling the viewer to attention: What might he or she see by taking the time to look at such a mundane activity in a new or more detailed way? The answer, of course, is up to each individual viewer.
In addition to the thematic similarities, there are some technical similarities that the two paintings share. Texture and composition have already been mentioned, but in addition to these, the color schemes of the two paintings are quite similar. Both Cassatt and Seurat, at least in these two paintings, preferred a muted color palette, mostly those in ranges of blues, purples, and silvery-white grays, with a hint of soft orange suggested in each and green in “Susan Comforting the Baby.” The colors are calm and sober, but not foreboding or oppressive in any way. Rather, the colors suggest quietness, reflecting the mood that the subjects suggest and which the painters seemed to want to create. The paintings are not intended to excite the viewer, but rather, to call the viewer to quiet contemplation of an ordinary scene and, perhaps, to invite the viewer to reflect on his or her own life and its simple daily tasks. The colors are warm and inviting, and because they are so appropriate for the subject and tone of each painting, they have the effect of drawing the viewer into these intimate scenes rather than creating any distance.
Despite all of the similarities in subject and technique that have been mentioned thus far, there are also technical and artistic distinctions that are important to mention and discuss. One of the most crucial differences observed between the two paintings is that of the different styles that the painters used to apply the oil paint to the canvas, in Cassatt’s case, and wood, in Seurat’s. Cassatt is entirely figurative, painting her subjects in a straightforward, non-abstract style. She does so, however, using an interesting variety of brush strokes, which are evident upon close examination of the work. When looking at Susan’s dress, for instance, the brush strokes are less controlled and more sketch-like; whereas the child’s dress, especially the collar, are more detailed, requiring finer and more precise brush strokes. What Cassatt proves in this painting is that she is equally comfortable and skilled with both types of brush work. The viewer also notices that a similar observation can be made about the background of “Susan Comforting the Baby.” The right side of the painting depicts a short wall and shrubbery that is more precise; while the background on the left is more diffuse and blurred. In either style, though, Cassatt is perfectly in control of her brush, and both types of brush work seem intended to produce distinct effects. Seurat, on the other hand, took an entirely different approach, composing his subject by exerting an exacting precision with just the tip of his brush. The woman, her vanity, and the room in which she is powdering herself are all painted not with lines, but with dots. Each dot contributes to the larger composition, creating not just form, but texture as well.
A close examination of these two paintings, Cassatt’s “Susan Comforting the Baby” and Seurat’s “Young Woman Powdering Herself,” shows that the two artists working contemporaneously seemed to be influenced by the same artistic trends of their day, namely, those of Impressionism, despite the fact that they worked continents apart. Both artists call the viewer to stop and to enter into a simple scene by paying attention to the small but meaningful details of daily life: how a mother moves to comfort a distressed child, how a woman engages quietly in her daily beauty routine. The paintings are calm and neither are challenging to the viewer’s eyes. Careful consideration, though, shows just how differently similar subjects produced in the same artistic period can be approached, even to produce a similar emotional response. In both Cassatt’s painting and in that of Seurat, the viewer notices that where the artists did not take risks in their subjects, they did take risks in executing the artistic techniques that portrayed those subjects and produced a response in the viewer. Cassatt, for her part, utilized a variety of brush work techniques to create very specific effects in her simple composition. Seurat took a more uniform approach, but one that was equally radical from a technical perspective, insisting that it was possible to produce a meaningful and cohesive composition simply by covering the canvas with carefully placed dots. The similarities and differences noted in these two paintings offer a general lesson about the practice of viewing artwork. By taking the time to slow down and consider a painting from a detailed perspective, one can notice characteristics and details that would escape the cursory glance. In the process, the viewer also learns about himself or herself and is invited to reflect upon larger themes about life.