A Formalist Analysis of Mary Cassatt’s Five O’clock Tea

Mary Cassatt is famous for her portrayals of mothers with their children, but this oil painting, Five O’clock Tea (c. 1880), depicts two women sitting together with no children in sight. One woman sips out of a porcelain cup, delicately raising her pinky finger and holding the saucer with her other hand. The woman on the other side sits close by on the same sofa, hand on chin in the thinking position, similar to Rodin’s The Thinker. Her cup and saucer is placed back on the tray before the two. The room is snug, with the sofa, table, mantelpiece, and wallpaper all close together, reinforcing the closeness of the two women who appear to be friends. By focusing on the form of this artwork, a brief formal analysis of Mary Cassatt’s Five O’clock Tea reveals the importance of female companionship and friendship through the use of the following five formal properties presented by Heinrich Wölfflin: (1) “painterly,” (2) “recession,” (3) “open,” (4) “unity,” and (5) “relative clarity.”

First, this piece is quite painterly, especially when analyzing the sofa design. Rather than having delineated firm outlines, there is greater emphasis on the atmospheric, shifting appearances seen in the artwork. Not much of the sofa is viewable, but what is seen reveals coral splashes of flower-like entities on a cream-colored surface. These flowers are not sharply outline but rather present a fluid, natural movement, even though they are not out in nature but inside, perhaps embroidered or printed, on a sofa. However, this painterly style encircles the women, bringing them seemingly closer together.

Second, rather than presenting a planar composition, this artwork is recessional. The order of the piece is not parallel; instead, the viewers are pulled into the background. The eyes follow the slopping shoulder and roundness of the arm towards the table, then to the shiny teapot and tray, then back towards the mantelpiece and framed artwork, and finally to the striped wallpaper. The viewers’ gaze zigzags while looking at the picture space into the back rather than analyzing the painting side-to-side. The viewers start with the woman on the left and end with the woman sitting on the right, emphasizing the central focus of this piece on the two friends and their connection.

Third, an open form, relating to how the artwork is framed and placed in relation to the viewer, is shown. No clear spatial indicators are here because the women are not specifically defined before the viewer. There is no clear delineation of lines and the rectangular shape of the picture. Instead the table creates a slanting diagonal line, while the woman’s arm creates another diagonal line in the opposite direction. The woman sipping her tea is believed to be further away from the viewer, while the contemplative woman’s elbow is foreshortened, as if protruding out into the viewers’ space. Therefore, this piece is composed more ambiguously and opens to enable the viewers to have different positions of perspective.

Fourth, Five O’clock Tea presents unity rather than multiplicity. Here the viewers do not see multiple unified forms that are separate and distinct. Instead the viewers experience “the whole as a whole” (Wölfflin 169). Taking away one figure or item from the piece would make the piece not unified but rather incomplete. The piece would become incomplete without the the teapot or the second cup and saucer on the table. Additionally, the piece would be incomplete without both women, suggesting the significance of depicting these women as friends instead of isolated individuals.

Fifth, Cassatt uses relative clarity in this painting because she uses painterly techniques for their own atmospheric effect instead of using optical effects to present a specific subject (Hatt and Klonk 80). Cassatt does not care about material illusion. The viewers are not confused into thinking that it is a real vase or real picture frame but rather mimetic imitations. On the wall, the horizontal stripes are not perfectly segregated but vary in width between one another. However, Cassatt does employ changes in color, which capture light reflections, for example, bouncing off the teapot and tray. Additionally, she employs juxtapositions in tone, contrasting the coral of the horizontal stripped wallpaper and flowered sofa with the darker browns, blacks, and greys of the women’s dresses. The tone of the surroundings is more bright and jovial, while the women’s darker clothing presents a more serious, contemplative tone and reiterate the connection between the two friends.

In conclusion, the familiarity of the women together with their surroundings reveals the central focus of this piece of art—female companionship. The title of the painting, Five O’clock Tea, could suggest the banality of daily living. This piece is neither a religious nor a historical painting, and the women are not royalty or nobility. However, the closeness of the two figures in relation to the room emphasizes the need for female companionship—especially in modern society. Although neither woman is breathtakingly beautiful, the formal elements of the painting connect the viewer with the two regular-looking friends, suggesting the potential to look past the superficial and to consider the deeper human connections in life.



Figure 1. Mary Cassatt, Five O’clock Tea, 1880, oil on canvas.


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