Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

Creating a catalog for Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, the only American artist to work with the French Impressionists in Paris, has been credited with creating nearly a thousand works, most depicting women in their everyday activities-dressing, bathing, sewing, drinking tea and interacting with their children.

But, much of what art historians think they understand about the collective work of this Philadelphia-born artist is based on incomplete information on dates, subjects and biographical circumstances more than a century old.

In a five-year effort requiring the investigative skills of a detective and the sensitivity of an art historian, Jay Cantor, AS '67M, hopes to settle these issues once and for all. With the input of a committee of curators and historians, Cantor is researching the catalog raisonne (in English, a systematic catalog) for Cassatt-a project intended to produce the definitive compendium of her creative output.

"It's a very complicated activity," he explains. "You have to test every piece of information about every single picture she painted, even sitter identification. It's especially complicated in this case because Cassatt virtually never dated her pictures. The whole understanding of the artist is really predicated on the sequence of her work, which is totally confused at this point. There are also authentication issues."

A specialist in American paintings, Cantor brings some 30 years of experience as a curator, writer, auction official and museum president to the Cassatt project, which is financially supported by Adelson Galleries in New York. Before delving full-time into the Cassatt catalog, Cantor brought another high-profile project in the art world off the ground, the opening in 1997 of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M.

Cantor's brief tenure as the O'Keeffe's first president was an exciting, if unplanned, career move. The museum was well on its way from the blueprint stage to the building of its first home last year when Cantor, a member of the development committee, offered some friendly words of advice to the chairman.

His counsel evidently was much appreciated, and Cantor, who had worked for Christie's auction house in New York City for 20 years, was offered a job opening the new facility and seeing it through its first months of operation.

"Directing a museum is really an entrepreneurial activity," Cantor says. "It's different from being a curator, but the background I had at Christie's was very appropriate for this activity. Not only did I run museum programs, but I also orchestrated sales and was involved in developing marketing to old and new audiences."

Cantor earned his bachelor's degree in the history of art at Cornell University and his master's degree in the University's cooperative Winterthur Program in Early American Culture.

From Delaware, Cantor moved on to a series of teaching and consulting positions, including working as a special projects assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; curating exhibits at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass., and at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn.; and writing articles for such publications as Antiques, ArtNews, Art in America and The Winterthur Portfolio.

These experiences led to his joining Christie's in 1978 to help create the American paintings department and, later, a department of museum services, as well as an education program.

Throughout his career, Cantor has made his academic interests a priority. Last year for example, while working at the O'Keeffe, he revised his 1985 book about the Winterthur Museum, a volume that tells how the estate of Henry Francis du Pont was developed from private home to world-class museum.

"It deals with the evolving story of collecting American decorative arts," Cantor explains, "and it includes much new research. I wrote two new chapters, which covered the development of the museum from the time the previous book was written, including the new exhibition buildings and the restoration of the garden."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88