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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mary Curtis Richardson

Children Playing on the Seashore, Attributed to Mary Curtis Richardson                
Yesterday (the item directly below) I went on at some length about the labels attached by later generations to an artist and, indirectly, their work. What I discussed were generic labels having to do with art history, nationalities, and geography. There is another type of label, often attached by contemporaries of a given artist, probably intended as a compliment, though not always interpreted that way by the targeted artist. That would be the comparative label. More than a few U.S.Impressionists during the previous century have been tagged "The American Monet." My own work has been compared, much too favorably, I might add, to that of Norman Rockwell. In one sense, I guess I should be flattered; but on the other hand, I'd rather my work be compared to that of Jim Lane. I would imagine most other artists, who have received such "praise," would prefer not to be cast in the shadow of a far more famous artist. It's not an insult really, but like the more historical "school" references mentioned yesterday, rarely, if ever, is it very accurate. I suppose, given human nature, comparisons between past and present artists are unavoidable. The American Impressionist, Mary Curtis Richardson was the "victim" of such a comparison tag. She was labeled, during her own lifetime, as "The Mary Cassatt of the West."
Three children Reading, after 1908, Mary Curtis Richardson
There is no record of how either artist felt about the comparison label, though they were almost exact contemporaries. Mary Curtis Richardson was born in 1848, four years after Mary Cassatt (1844). Richardson died in 1931, Mary Cassatt in 1926. Chronology aside (which never means much anyway), the similarities between the two are superficial, their differences far more significant. Mary Cassatt studied first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, then spent most of her life learning from the best while adding a female point of view as she contributed extensively to the broadening appeal of Impressionism. Mary Curtis Richardson, while also trained in the East (New York's Cooper Union) never left the United States except to travel via the isthmus of Panama (before the canal) in going to and from her family home in San Francisco. There she attended classes at the local School of Design. Her Three Children Reading (above) is one of her best group portraits.
The Sleeping Child,
Mary Curtis Richardson
The Young Mother,
Mary Curtis Richardson
Maternity, 1890, Mary Cassatt

Although Richardson's biographers mention that she painted Impressionist landscapes, they must not have left much of an impression as I could find only one, her Children Playing on he Seashore (top). Even at that, its attribution is somewhat uncertain. Otherwise, she painted mostly portraits of the female gender. As I pointed out a few days ago in discussing another American Impressionist, you don't learn Impressionism by painting portraits. Mary Cassatt painted women and children too, which is undoubtedly where the "Mary Cassatt of the West" tag began. But no one, even an art neophyte, would ever mistake Richardson's portraits of The Sleeping Child (above, left) or The Young Mother (above, right) for one by Cassatt (right). Cassatt knew Impressionism firsthand. Richardson's exposure to the style was secondhand at best.

Joseph M. Bransten, Son of MJB coffee
magnate, Mary Curtis Richardson
Young Woman (possibly Katherine Cook
of Carmel), Mary Curtis Richardson
That's not to say that Mary Richardson was in any way lacking as a portrait artist, despite her limited training and limited exposure to Impressionism. She was also compared very favorably to several of the best of her male counterparts living and working in San Francisco during her career. But, her acceptance was limited to women and children and there's little or no indication she ever made much of an effort to break free from this "specialty." Her family was well-off; her father having been a gold-seeking "forty-niner," who later taught the art of drawing and engraving to both his daughters. Mary's husband, whom she married in 1869, was in the lumber business, so there was no need to move beyond the socially acceptable bounds assigned to women artists of her day. Instead, she simply made the most of them, working the gender stereotype of female portrait artists as sensitive painters of women and children, both of which she did very well, if only remotely impressionistically. Richardson's portrait of Joseph M. Bransten (above, left) has a warm, androgynous quality which was likely acceptable for an upper-class boy during the early 1900s, but would be abhorrent in a portrait of even a prepubescent boy today. The Young Woman (above, right), on the other hand, while attractive enough, displays probably the worst posture I've ever seen in a painted portrait.

Hal and His Dog, Mary Curtis Richardson

Felix Morris, Mary Curtis Richardson
Mary Curtis Richardson did not engage in a career as a portrait painter until around 1908. And, despite her reputation for painting women and children, some of the children were boys, some of them verging upon manhood, such as her rather bored subject, Hal and His Dog (above). Like The Young Woman mentioned before, Hal could have been a bit more "upright" though then, as now, boys are afforded a little more leeway in that regard than girls. Yes, there is a little doggy down there in all that murky darkness (bottom, right, near the chair leg). Look for it. The impressionists would have cried out in anguish. Despite Richardson's un-impressionist love of bitumen black and umber, her portrait of Felix Morris (left) would suggest she could paint mature men with equal ease as her depictions of adult women. Her Portrait of Mary Blanche Hubbard (below, right) from 1889, is one of her earliest efforts. Mary Curtis Richardson died at her home/studio on Russian Hill, San Francisco, in 1931.

Portrait of Mary Blanche Hubbard,
1889, Mary Curtis Richardson


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