By Rachael C. Bible
The Forsyth Galleries of Texas A&M University
The Forsyth Galleries of Texas A&M University were created in 1989 to house and display works of art collected by Bill (class of 1935) and Irma Runyon. As a part of the Forsyth’s current exhibition, Highlights from the Runyon Collection, a painting by the most well-known American female Impressionist painter hangs on the back wall of our large gallery. Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby, Seen from the Back View was painted by Mary Cassatt around the year 1909, only five years before she was forced to stop painting in 1914 due to the development of cataracts. Irma Runyon purchased the painting from an Arlington, Texas, art dealer in 1973.
In May of this year we sent Mother in a Large Hat to the conservator to be evaluated and have a small area cleaned. While there, multispectral images were taken, which 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 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. It is with many thanks to our conservator, Dennis Baltuskonis, that we bring you these images!
When allowed to peek beneath the paint 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 guidelines. 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. In the near infrared and red false color images, the under drawing is readily visible as dark lines around the mother and child. It appears that the sketch was done quite quickly, as the lines are thick and rough in places.
While comparing the hat on the under drawing and finished painting, one can see where Cassatt decided to change the outline of the hat’s crown. In the sketch there is no large bow or ribbon that extends 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. One can also see where she modified the tip of the nose slightly.
The under drawing is also very apparent when viewing the “false color” infrared image, which is created by adding color to the black and white infrared image to create more contrast and allow more details to become apparent to the naked eye. These lines pop quite well on the left (viewer’s perspective) edge of the hat, the mother’s arms, and baby. 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 since younger paint does not fluoresce in the same manner as the original paint.
I hope you enjoyed taking a peek underneath the layers of this lesser-known painting by Mary Cassatt. Mother in a Large Hat Holding her Nude Baby, Seen from the Back View will be on display in the Forsyth Galleries, Texas A&M University, until December 7th, 2012. If you are in the College Station area, please stop by and visit!
Click on any of the thumbnail images to view a larger version.
Rachael C. Bible is a graduate student at Texas A&M University studying for a Ph.D. in biological anthropology (paleoanthropology). She received her B.A. in anthropology from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. In addition to her paleoanthropological training she has worked on archaeological excavations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Greece, South Africa, and Spain. Her travels have inspired a great love of art in all its many forms. She is a gallery attendant at the Texas A&M Forsyth Galleries.