13 April 2010

Lousine Havemeyer & Mary Cassatt: The Power of Two

On the 140th anniversary of the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, let's remember the women who made the Met the home of the finest French art collection outside the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

If people remember Lousine Havemeyer (1855-1929) today, it is as the wife of the wealthy sugar baron Henry O. Havemeyer. But that is hardly the story of her luck and pluck. Lousine Elder was a young girl when her father died. Luckily for Lousine, her mother decided to tour Europe rather than stay home and be courted by the sort of men who find wealthy widows attractive. What luck for the talented Lousine to study art in the Paris of the 1870s. Even better was when her friend Emily Sartain introduced Louisine to the young American artist Mary Cassatt and a lifelong friendship began. Cassatt painted Havemeyer and her daughters several times. With H.O.'s millions and Mary's knowledge of all the coming artists in France, Lousine Havemeyer was armed and ready to collect, and collect she did.

Mary Cassatt urged Louisine to acquire works by the (then) controversial Claude Monet and his fellow Impressionists, and by her friend Edgar Degas. In searching through the Havemeyer collection at the Met, I looked for pieces that had particular interest for Mrs. H. O., as she was called. There are hundreds to choose from, so I tried to avoid some of the most recognizable ones, the ones that have been reproduced on the place mats, coasters, umbrellas, etc. in the Met's gift shops.

While her contemporaries focused on Corot's landscapes, Lousine took note of his figurative works; his The Muse of History appealed to her feminist heart. Havemeyer was no prude, but the images of women that spoke to her were more varied than those that appealed to many of her male contemporaries. Two paintings by Degas, Dancers In Green And Pink and At The Milliner's are much more avant-garde than we realize. Both are experiments in perspective and planing that appeared radical to the artist's contemporary critics who knew what vantage point they wanted their pictures painted from. Those strong vertical assertions altered the accepted order. To the viewer, just as to the prosperous customer, trying on the hat, the woman who created the hat is bifurcated almost violently, a vivid representation of social inequality.
Havemeyer's attraction to bright colors is reflected in her choice of Louis Comfort Tiffany to decorate her Fifth Avenue townhouse. The exquisite Tiffany hair ornament was a gift from Mrs. H. O. to her daughter-in-law.

It seems necessary to keep asserting the strengths of both womenin the face of decades of criticism that, being women, they were in some way not up to herculean tasks of making and collecting art. Yet Cassatt recommended and Havemeyer purchased this vibrant, lopsided Cezanne still life.

This last image, The Collector Of Prints, is an early work by Degas, painted when Lousine Havemeyer was a little girl. Just because life is easier for the rich than for poor should not obscure what strengths, what energies this woman had to marshall to imagine herself as a possible artist and collector, not to mention a supporter of the radical feminism of her time. We may have been born at a luckier time, but Havemeyer's triumph is ours, thanks to her.

Images from the Havemeyer Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC:
1. Claude Monet - The Green Wave, After 1866.
2. mary Cassatt - Young Mother Sewing, 1900.
3. Edgar Degas - Portrait Of A Young Woman, c. 1885.
4. Jena Baptiste Camille Corot - The Muse Of History, c. 1865.
5. Edgar Degas - Girl Having Her Hair Combed, c.1886.
6. Edgar Degas - At the Milliner's, 1882.
7. Edgar Degas - Dancers In Green And Pink, c. 1890.
8. Louis Comfort Tiffany - vase, c. 1896.
9. Louis Comfort Tiffany - hair ornament, c. 1904.
10. Paul Cezanne - Still Life With Eggplants, c. 1893.
11. Edgar Degas - The Collector Of Prints, 1866.


Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing your love of art & your knowledge of art history so eloquently.

Davidikus said...

Arguably, the finest French art collections are in the Louvre, which accomodates spectacular Le Brun, Delacroix, Vouet, Fragonard, Poussin, Watteau, Nattier, David, Ingres...

The role of Mary Cassatt as a collector (& as a painter) was crucial in the development of American art, though! She is too often forgotten.

Great post.


Vilt og vakkert said...

I know all the painters, but not the woman that collected their art.
Interesting post!

Jane said...

Welcome, Sally. As I was researching the Havemeyer collection, the Met's website crashed. I discovered Lousine Havemeyer in Kathleen D. McCarthy's excellent book "Women's Culture: American Philanthropy and Art, 1830-1930"(University of Chicago Press:1991). I've thought about her a lot, as my mother was friends with the great-grandaughter of financier and politician Russell Sage. Sage's wife, Margaret Slocum Sage, spent her widowhood and his great fortune, doing all kinds of good works that would have made him furious. Even better, she named her foundation "The Russell Sage Foundation" so that his name would live on, forever associated with progressive initiatives in architecture, design, urban planning, protection of wildlife and natural habitats, and higher education for women. How I wish I could have known her.

Jane said...

Davidikus, I made the comparison with the Musee D'Orsay because that is where the French Ministry of Culture chose to house art from the period that Mrs. Havemeyer most notably collected, in partnership with Mary Cassatt. There is some debate about advice Mrs. Havemeyer received from the men she collaborated with in collecting earlier European art. Which only highlights the quality of the collaboration with Cassatt. After all, this was their contemporary art and they took a lot of chances.

Jane said...

Hello, V.O.V. I know that feeling. After reading Kathleen McCarthy's book, as mentioned above, it occurred to me that another title for it would be "Behind Every Museum Is A Good Woman."