The AGO presents the work of Mary Cassatt and Helen McNicoll

For those looking to add some culture to their summer experience, the Art Gallery of Ontario has recently launched an eye-opening exhibition celebrating the extraordinary art and bold lives of Impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Helen McNicoll.

Cassatt – McNicoll: Impressionists Between Worlds is a revelatory portrait of artistic ambition, showcasing the talents and impact of two Impressionist painters, whose lives were as unconventional as their paintings were bold. Featuring 50 paintings and works on paper, alongside sketchbooks and archival materials, the ambitious exhibition marks the first major presentation of paintings and prints by Mary Cassatt in Canada. 

At a moment when most women were denied advanced art education and professional recognition, Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) and McNicoll (Canadian, 1879-1915), crossed the Atlantic to pursue careers as professional artists. Their beautifully detailed paintings and novel compositions challenged expectations of what a painting should look like and how women were portrayed. Curated by Dr. Caroline Shields, the AGO’s Curator of European Art, the exhibition is organized by the AGO, home to the largest public collection of McNicoll’s work in the world.

Working in the then radical style of Impressionism — an approach emphasizing colour, light and everyday subjects — their highly constructed paintings dared to present women and children as dynamic subjects with rich interior lives. In posing female models at work and in contemplation, caregiving and resting, indoors and out, they gave visual form to the modern woman.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Summertime, 1894. Oil on canvas, 100.6 x 81.3 cm. Terra Foundation of American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. 1988.25. Photo © Terra Foundation of American Art, Chicago.

“Cassatt and McNicoll’s paintings celebrate womanhood on its own terms. In addition to their sheer beauty, these artworks are alive with underlying tension… between one’s birthplace and chosen home, between the professional and the domestic, between social expectations and personal ambitions,” says Dr. Shields. 

“Their success was made possible by the growth of transatlantic travel, and the impact of their work in North America supports a broader, more global understanding of Impressionism – as a style that wasn’t limited to Paris but was activated by cross-cultural exchange. We are so proud to bring Cassatt to Canada and to showcase McNicoll’s artistic achievement.”

Organized thematically, Impressionists Between Worlds is the first exhibition to feature these two North American artists side by side. Spotlighting their shared pursuit of professional status, the exhibition highlights their unique approaches to art and life, from their networking strategies to the ways they composed and exhibited their paintings.  

Cassatt settled in Paris in 1874, and by 1879, had become the only North American member of the Impressionist circle, showing in four of their eight official exhibitions. A painter who also worked in printmaking and pastels, she became known for her nuanced portrayals of modern women characterized by vigorous brushwork. She worked alongside dealers and prominent art collectors, advocating in favour of modern art purchases that would later form major American collections. Despite her success, and the important role she played as an art advisor, her work is vastly underrepresented in Canada, as no Canadian museum owns a painting by Cassatt.

Highlights of the exhibition include Young Girl at a Window (c. 1883-1884) on loan from the National Gallery of Art, On a Balcony (c.1878-79) on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, The Cup of Tea (c. 1880-81) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, and 11 exquisitely coloured prints from the National Gallery of Canada.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, The Cup of Tea, c.1880-1881. Oil on canvas, 92.4 × 65.4 cm. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, From the Collection of James Stillman, Gift of Dr. Ernest G. Stillman, 1922 (22.16.17). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.

A generation apart, McNicoll arrived in London in 1902. She travelled extensively across Europe, using her London studio as a homebase. She constructed her tour de force Impressionist paintings of women and children through vivid strokes of paint in vibrant colours, exhibiting her work in England and Canada. McNicoll was elected an associate member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1913, and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1914, signaling the recognition she earned both abroad and at home in her lifetime.  

Equally adept at depicting landscapes, genre scenes and figures, McNicoll’s paintings remain some of the greatest examples of Impressionism in Canada. Highlighting the AGO’s leadership in the study, collection and presentation of McNicoll, the exhibition features her intimate sunlit bedroom scene Interior (c. 1913) and the recently conserved oil on canvas, White Sunshade #2 (c. 1912), alongside loans including The Victorian Dress (1914) from the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Under the Shadow of the Tent (1913) from the Montreal of Museum of Fine Art, and rarely seen works from private collections. 

Helen Galloway McNicoll, Picking Flowers, c. 1912. Oil on canvas, Framed: 115.5 x 107 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of R. Fraser Elliott, Toronto, in memory of Betty Ann Elliott, 1992. Photo © AGO. 92/102.

Cassatt’s and McNicoll’s careers were made possible by the commercial availability of transatlantic travel. The exhibition presents a selection of archival materials from the University of British Columbia Rare Books and Special Collections, including promotional pamphlets and passenger manifests, illustrating this moment in commercial transportation history.

Impressionists Between Worlds is accompanied by a 152 page hardcover catalogue, edited by Caroline Shields, and featuring essays by Nicole Georgopulos, Samantha Burton, and Julie Nash. 

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