Edgar Degas- Portrait of Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (May 22, 1844—June 14, 1926) was an Impressionist painter from Pennsylvania who operated in Paris for a large part of her career and who entertained close relations with the Impressionist circle.

Mary Cassatt’s Life

Cassatt, who came from a well-off family with French-Huguenot roots, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and pursued the painterly profession against her family’s wishes. The gender segregation at the school, typical of the early 20th century, as well as its disregard for female students, was already the target of the feminist critique by the time Cassatt abandoned her studies.

Thanks to voyages to Europe which her family enabled, Mary Cassatt was already aware as a teenager of the Romanticism which had burgeoned in French painting in the first half of the century.

When she finally decided to give up on her degree at the Pennsylvania Academy — where she felt she was not being taught anything of value in part because she was a woman — Cassatt travelled to Paris at the age of 22, in 1866. This was once again in opposition to her family, who still hoped to see her give up the arts.

For many years her Parisian existence, interrupted with visits back home during such events as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, would be one of sustenance. The family provided for her immediate needs but not for her art, which simply failed to pay for itself. She was not succeeding at selling her work in Europe and her American contacts brought her only a few commissions (Bishop Michael Domenec being among the few patrons). Some of the paintings from her catalogue were even destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

In Paris, Mary Cassatt took classes from the genre artist Charles Joshua Chaplin, attended the atelier of Couture, and copied the masters at the Louvre. In the 1870s she also established herself within the short-lived Impressionist group, developing a deep friendship with Edgar Degas. Like some of her more radical Impressionist friends, Cassatt held a deep disdain for the policy on which the official Salon accepted its artworks. Once she acquired standing as a Parisian artist, her criticisms became better known. It appears, furthermore, that Cassatt was aware of the sexual component in the decisions of the judges of the panel, namely their preference for female artists with whom they enjoyed some kind of relationship.

Mary Cassatt and The Paris Salon

Mary Cassatt Two Women Throwing Flowers (1872)
Mary Cassatt Two Women Throwing Flowers (1872)

1871 represented a turning point for Cassatt as her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was both accepted at the Salon and sold to a client. She also earned herself positive attention in Italy. This ephemeral success was accompanied by her opening of a studio in Paris and the arrival of her sister Lydia. Her father and mother followed in 1877.

It is only after that year — when the Salon rejected both of her entries — that Cassatt began to exhibit her works along with the Impressionists, the outcasts of the Parisian art scene. Her medium into the Impressionist style and circle was Degas. From an admiring study of his work, Cassatt developed an interest in pastel, one of Degas’ distinguishing marks and a technique he would help her to master.

From among the Impressionists, Degas was an ideal companion for Cassatt, not least for his predilection for indoor and human subjects. Besides, the collaboration taught Cassatt how to engrave, how to experiment with distemper, and how to operate a print. The latter project, which was intended to produce a journal, was eventually abandoned by Degas and consequently floundered.

At the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, despite the many absences, both Degas and Cassatt did well by receiving appreciation and accomplishing sales.

Mary Cassatt was instrumental in bringing the Impressionists, in particular Degas, to the attention of the American audience. The vast collection now at the Metropolitan Museum was put together by Cassatt’s friend Louisine Elder and her husband under Cassatt’s advice. Cassatt also supported her Impressionist colleagues by sometimes purchasing their works. For her services to the arts, France would award her the Légion d’honneur in 1904. Indeed, in her late-life Cassatt was especially known as an art collector and expert who sometimes acted as artistic advisor to collectors. Interest in her own creations was somewhat late in coming.

In the 1880s, the waning years of the Impressionist movement, Cassatt took up a more uniform and linear style of painting and no longer identified with any artistic circle. She also invested her efforts exceptionally into portraits and particularly depictions of mothers with children. This is peculiar for the fact that Cassatt chose never to marry and had no children of her own.

Later Years & Further Travel

In her last years, Cassatt expressly rejected the emerging avant-garde and sought the simplicity of her sentimentalist portraits. A trip to Egypt in 1910 distressed her in a peculiar way; she was both amazed at the grandeur of its ancient art and discouraged from pursuing her own.

Mary Cassatt’s Paintings, Prints & Drawings

Cassatt’s oil on canvas of the early 1890s titled Summertime showcases her ability with the Impressionist technique. A woman and a young girl (likely mother and child) are in the act of turning to one side of their boat to look at the geese swimming hard by in what is likely a lake or a pond. In a manner resembling that of Manet’s Boating (1874), the surface of the water occupies the entirety of the view behind as well as in front of the small and barely fashioned vessel on which the two figures are sat. It is a case of photographic perspective in which the ‘objective’ is stood at a plane higher than that of its human subjects.

Mary Cassett: The Child’s Bath (1893)
Mary Cassatt: The Child’s Bath (1893)

The Child’s Bath of 1893, another oil, is instead an instance of Cassatt’s reversion to a pre-Impressionist treatment of shape and colour. The volumes in this composition of a mother bathing her daughter in a basin are fully developed and rounded. A dark line traces the outlines while the effect of contrast is achieved by means of the light tones of the young girl’s skin, her towel, and her mother’s lengthy robe set against a colourful but darker background of the homely environment.

The painting is one of the long series of Cassatt’s portrayal of a mother with child, compositions which were possibly inspired by the classical arrangements of the Madonna with Child. In Cassatt’s treatment of female subjects, they are invariably dressed in their quotidian raiments. This appears to be a continuation of the genre painting tradition, but it also conforms to Cassatt’s desire to portray people, most especially women, as they truly are. She thus eschews any attempt at idealisation but, even more, she evades the depiction of women as objects of male erotic interest.

Her Feminism & Legacy

Mary Stevenson Cassatt is biographically situated in the very midst of the suffragist campaign for the voting rights of women. In her youth, the feminist movement was already accomplishing the opening of major American institutes of higher learning to female students.

Without occupying any expressly political position, and without undertaking any feminist activism, Cassatt was nonetheless clearly preoccupied with the subject of the modern woman (or ‘New Woman’, as the idea was sometimes called). Many of her portraits show professional and literate women invested in common middle-class pursuits.

Like many feminist women of her generation, Cassatt never married. Her conception of male-female equality was unambiguously egalitarian. She expected to work for her pay and never wanted considerations of sex to take part in the evaluation of works of art. She was therefore a first-wave, Enlightenment feminist.

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