Perspective | Mary Cassatt was brilliant even before she became an Impressionist

Balconies are like stages. For painters, they provide a ready-made tableau. They’re places where people naturally huddle, ready to watch and be watched.

“On the Balcony,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a relatively early work by Mary Cassatt. She painted it while in Seville, Spain, in 1873. It’s not a classic Cassatt — she was still finding her voice — and to modern eyes, it looks a bit staged, even cheesy. But I love its liveliness.

Part of its effect comes from the jaunty composition. We see the balcony at an angle, so the figures, although very close, recede slightly in space. Against that expected recession, the closer figure tilts her head away while the more distant woman leans forward and toward us, creating an interesting kind of spatial torque.

We’re made curious, too, about the interplay between the three figures. The man, his face cast in shadow by his wide-brimmed hat, appears to be flirting with the closer woman, while something below has caught the attention of the woman in red. What is it? (I’m guessing a cute dog.) The colors are wonderfully fresh: Red against green. Pink on light blue. Lots of complementary notes in between.

By 1873, after years of effort and frustration, Cassatt’s career was finally shifting into gear. But she had not yet begun to fraternize with the likes of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Those painters, soon to be labeled Impressionists, were at that very moment planning their first group exhibition, breaking from the official annual Paris Salon, whose conservative juries had been stifling their modernizing efforts for years.

Cassatt (1844-1926), who was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Philadelphia, was already kicking away from the slickly painted styles and outdated subject matter favored by the all-powerful Salon. But she was not yet as bold as Degas or Édouard Manet. She was still under the spell of realism, the gritty style pioneered by Gustave Courbet. And there was no more decisive influence on Courbet or Manet than the Spanish school of painting. So it wasn’t by accident that Cassatt found herself in Spain.

“On the Balcony” looks like an homage to Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Francisco Goya, and at the same time to Manet, who had painted a picture titled “The Balcony” for the 1869 Salon. Manet’s work featured, like Cassatt’s, a green balcony railing. It was intended as an homage to — or an ironic take on — Goya’s “Majas on a Balcony,” a painting of courtesans wearing mantillas and flirting behind fans, with shadowy men behind.

Painting is so often circular in this way. Painters are always lifting ideas, scenarios and styles from other painters, then cannibalizing ideas they’ve come to think of, rightly or wrongly, as their own. Cassatt clearly loved the balcony motif. It conveniently combined aspects of spectacle and voyeurism. In fact, the Philadelphia Museum of Art also holds two ravishing later Cassatts, which she exhibited when she debuted at the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879. They show young women not on balconies but in loges at the theater, in both cases holding fans.

If they are brighter, bolder and more daring in their handling of space and color than her “On the Balcony,” that’s surely because of the impact of the Impressionists, especially Degas. But “On the Balcony,” with its figures’ full-wattage smiles, robustly modeled bodies and beautifully painted costumes, also reminds us of how good Cassatt was even before she became an Impressionist.

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