Mary Cassatt captured the essence of Gilded Age femininity in her beguiling portraits of mothers with infants and young girls with pets in genteel domestic settings.
Cassatt also printed mirror images, or counterproofs, of these subtle portraits in pastel from 1905 to 1915, during her long career as a leading expatriate artist in Paris. Her prints — one or two per portrait — were then marketed by her Parisian dealer, Ambroise Vollard, and the images all but disappeared into private collections.
Now, a trove of 48 counterproofs of these portraits, uncovered in the estate of an unnamed French art lover, will be sold at prices ranging from $50,000 to $400,000 apiece — or more than $7 million dollars for the lot.
The collection is on view from Nov. 1 through Jan. 14 at the Adelson Galleries in Manhattan. It is billed as the first-ever show and sale of Cassatt counterproofs anywhere.
The images show mothers and naked infants in endearing poses, young girls with pensive expressions holding their lap dogs and women in fancy dresses and large bonnets. Many of the subjects have such names as Sara, Margot, Simone or Nicolle, but their identities aren’t recorded, and most are believed to be French artists’ models.
The exhibition is like “walking into Vollard’s gallery 100 years ago and seeing current works of Mary Cassatt,” said Warren Adelson, the gallery president.
Amazing discoveryThe discovery of the counterproofs came as a revelation for Cassatt experts, showing the extent of her experimentation in the European technique perfected in the 18th century.
Cassatt placed a damp sheet of Japan paper over the pastel drawings, then ran the sheets through a special printing press. The process created a reverse image, including her signature as if shown in a mirror. The counterproof hue is lighter than the actual portrait, but retains the delicate quality of the pastel. It also creates a patina that gives the copy an ethereal sheen.
Only 22 counterproofs of Cassatt’s work had been known before, including a half-dozen held by U.S. museums. No one knew of this cache until Adelson’s colleague, Marc Rosen, was called in by the French estate to examine the holdings several years ago.
The 48 put on the market aren’t the estate’s entire holding of Cassatt’s counterproofs, but rather a solid selection at a time considered ripe for the offering, Adelson said.
The counterproofs are priced at about 10 percent of the estimated market value of the original pastels. The most expensive image, “The Banjo Lesson,” is offered at $400,000 — meaning that the original portrait would be worth at least $4 million or $5 million, Adelson estimated. It is owned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Cassatt was born in 1844 to a wealthy family with French roots in Allegheny City, Pa. She received her initial training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the Civil War, then went to Europe in 1865 for studies in Rome; Parma, Italy; Seville, Spain; and Antwerp, Belgium. She settled in Paris in 1874, six years after her work was first accepted for the annual Paris Salon.
Breaking away from the salon’s strictures, Cassatt threw her lot in with the French impressionists, debuting her paintings at their 1878 independent exhibition. Her social connections helped spread the popularity of impressionism and boosted their sales.
By 1900, Cassatt’s work had achieved wide recognition in the United States, and she traveled home more frequently. In 1915, she helped organize a New York showing of her works, along with Degas and various old masters, to fund efforts for women’s suffrage. But her eyesight soon deteriorated, ending her career. She died at her French chateau in 1926.