The Anatomy of a Cassatt

In May of this year (2012) we sent Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby by Mary Cassatt to the conservator to be evaluated and have a small area cleaned.  While at the conservator, multispectral images were taken that allowed us to see beneath the layers of this painting for the first time.  Multispectral imaging, including infrared and ultra violet fluorescence (UVF), have been used by many museums and conservators to help us understand the process by which an artist created their work.  Under drawings (the original sketches), modifications to the art by the artist, as well as later conservation work become clear when using this technique.  With many thanks to Dennis Baltuskonis we bring you these images!  This post is a continuation of The History of a Cassatt which outlines how the painting came to reside in our gallery.

Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby, Seen from the Back View by Mary Cassatt, circa 1909, oil on canvas

When allowed to peek beneath the layers with near and far infrared imaging, we can see that Mary Cassatt created a quick sketch of the mother and baby but left the background blank of sketching.  It is also apparent that she made modifications to the hands, neck, hat, and contour of the face during the painting process.  These are the places where the under drawing does not match up with the finished painting.  There is also evidence of a small area of restoration on the mother’s face when viewed with UVF.

Near infrared (700-1000nm) image of Mother in a Large Hat by Mary Cassatt. The dark outlines visible around the mother and baby are the under drawing created by the artist.

In the detail of the left hand with near infrared imaging, you can see that Mary Cassatt decided after sketching to have the fingers of her left hand tuck unto the crook of her arm.

Detail of neck, face, and hat.

On the detail comparison of the neck, face, and hat you can see where Cassatt decided to change the outline of the top part of the hat.  In the under sketch there is no large bow or ribbon that extends up above the crown of the hat.  Cassatt also changed the contour of the neck slightly after sketching.  The posterior line of the neck in the painting is moved slightly back from the original line in the sketch.  You can also see where she modified the tip of the nose slightly.

Face detail with arrows to points of interest.

The under drawing is also very apparent when viewing the “false color” infrared image, which are created by added color to the black and white infrared image to create more contrast and allow more details to become apparent to the naked eye.  The under drawing appears as dark lines outlining the mother and baby.  These pop quite well on the left (viewer’s perspective) edge of the hat, the mother’s arms, and baby.

False color infrared image.

The dark spots on the mother’s face in the UVF image are evidence of later restoration work.  These appear as dark spots in this imaging technique as new paint does not fluoresce in the same manner as the original paint.

UVF detail of the face. Note the dark spots on the cheek. These are evidence of previous restoration work.

I hope you enjoyed taking a peek underneath the layers of this painting.  Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby, Seen from the Back View is currently on display at the Forsyth Center Galleries.  If you are in the area stop by for a visit!

Carefully cleaning a spot on the painting!

6 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Cassatt

  1. Thanks for posting this! Revealing the history of the alterations like this also shows that painting is not as easy as it might look. Makes me want to dig out the biography of Cassatt that I know is stashed away in the house somewhere.

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