Watercolor: Cassatt's "Self-Portrait"

Cassatt looking at watercolorsCassatt Self-Portrait watercolorJames Toogood comments on Mary Cassatt’s watermedia painting Self-Portrait.

by James Toogood

Cassatt Self-Portrait watercolor
by Mary Cassatt, watercolor on
ivory wove paper, 33 x 24.
Collection National Portrait
Gallery, Washington, DC.

Mary Cassatt was not known for her transparent watercolors. She usually used bodycolors, in both her oils and pastels. Bodycolor differs from transparent watercolor in that the white of the paper optically mixes with the pigment color as light passes through a layer of paint. With bodycolor, light bounces off the paint’s surface. Here she is working with both bodycolor and watercolor, in particular gouache, which is watercolor made opaque through the addition of an opacifier–typically chalk–which allows it to cover whatever is painted underneath. This is not a black-and-white issue–one can apply watercolor thickly enough to render it opaque, or scumble a bodycolor lightly enough to make it slightly transparent. Here, it seems Cassatt used watercolor for much of the painting–we can see the transparent paint allowing light to transfer through the pigment, mix with the substrate, and bounce back again in several places, including the upper right hand side of the painting. But you can also see that white has been added in the patch above her hat, in the brim of her hat, in areas around her face, and most evidently in the sweep of blue-gray forming the shoulder shape on the left. Clearly, a bodycolor was used to obscure the dark of her shoulder.

The palette is fairly limited; we see a yellow that may be aureolin (although it could be a now obsolete color, strontium yellow, which was semi-opaque), a blue that is probably Prussian blue, and Chinese white. Compositionally, it's worth noting the tiny marks on the far right, some of which seem to have been partially wiped off. Even though they don't describe much beyond perhaps suggesting an easel, they serve to balance the composition. In this painting Cassatt was finding the perfect balance and harmony. If the marks were too heavy, they would have competed with her figure.


New Jersey resident James Toogood AWS/NWS studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. The subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions, he has participated in numerous group shows, including those of the American Watercolor Society and the National Academy of Design, winning many awards. He frequently juries exhibitions and was an awards juror for the 2006 American Watercolor Society annual. Toogood is the author of Incredible Light and Texture in Watercolor, (North Light Books, West Chester, Ohio) and he has written many articles and contributed to several other books. His work is widely collected throughout the United States and abroad, and he is represented by Rosenfeld Gallery, in Philadelphia. The artist teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, in New York City, and the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Toogood also conducts watercolor workshops throughout the United States.

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