Five O'Clock Tea Mary Cassatt

Five O’Clock Tea: Mary Cassatt

Five O’Clock Tea is an 1880 painting in the Impressionist style by the leading American painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt. This work is located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

Analysis of Cassatt’s Five O’Clock Tea

Also known simply as The Tea, this picture may look like an ordinary genre painting but it defies the usual. Mary Cassatt is an American artist that moved to France to join the French Impressionists. She proudly wanted to reject traditional art conventions of the time as she said, “I accepted with joy, I hated conventional art.” The silver tea set feels the closest to the viewer and is unusually large.

The two figures who would usually be the main subject of this kind of painting are behind it and to the side. One is even covering her face with a teacup. Interestingly, the tea set can be seen at the Boston MFA along with this painting. The tea set was made in Philadelphia. An interesting connection to the artist’s American roots.

The two figures do not even acknowledge the viewer. One theory is that the painting depicts an awkward visit. The viewer is placed in the role of the unwanted guest. In the way of the Impressionists, Cassatt focuses on color and composition. The composition feels almost suffocating by the decorative items from the proper living room.

Because of Cassatt’s period and gender, she was confined to “feminine spaces” which come out in what she painted.
She usually painted friends and their children. In The Tea, some think that the model is Cassatt’s sister and a family friend, but it could also be her models that she had used in the past. While her male counterparts could visit the music halls, pubs, and travel to other countries, she could not travel to these places by herself if ever.

Berthe Morisot, another female impressionist, would also deal with this genre. Cassatt had also painted about teatime at home with The Cup of Tea. This painting does not have the same mysterious aura as The Tea. Because for Cassatt and Morisot, these domestic spaces held more meaning than for the men. The Tea does not have a sentimental homey feeling but a more cryptic meaning.

There were very different contemporary opinions on Tea. While some critics loved it such as J.-K. Huysmans who called it “an excellent canvas”. Critics who were usually harsh on Cassatt admitted to liking it. Many critiques of the painting were about how the faces were “neglected” and the prominence of the silver tea set. An example, Paul Mantz, a conservative writer, said, “wretched sugar bowl remains floating in the air like a dream”. This painting was soon purchased by Henri Rouart, a French Art Collector, who hung it in his home. After his death, it was acquired by another supporter of the French arts, Dikran Kelekian.

Mary Cassatt incorporated her Impressionist background into the genre of domestic paintings. She does not focus on perfecting the likeness. Instead of having a comfortable experience, she creates an unwelcome feeling. She brings nuance to domestic spaces that were earlier seen as merely sentimental.

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