Mary Cassatt, American Impressionist

Of the impressionists who painted in Paris during the final decades of the 19th Century, Mary Cassatt, an American Impressionist who made great sacrifices to create her art, is probably the most underrated.

It’s easy enough to reach the conclusion that Cassatt has been under valued because, along with her friend, Berthe Morisot, she represented a small minority of women working in what was–and still is–a boys’ club of other painters, critics and agents. In a milieu where the values recognize male traditions, towering cathedrals, pastoral farmlands and prettified women and children, Cassatt stood out with her complex, domestic scenes of not glamorized women doing as much as women were then allowed to do. And doing it lovingly.

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Our first image is a lyrical scene of a mother with her daughter idly feeding water fowl on the water in summer. One of the most interesting things about this picture is that a third person, presumably a man, has been left out of the picture. We know this person only from an oar we can see entering the picutre from the right. Any objective viewer would assume that a male companion has been excised, making this a terrifically interesting statement.

What follows, in artistically contrasting way is the image of a woman, presumably her mother, helping a young girl with her bath.

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Summertime
Mary Cassatt
9×12 Giclee Print
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The Bath
Mary Cassatt
16×24 Fine …
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Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 to a wealthy Pittsburgh family that moved to Philadelphia during her childhood. So well-heeled were the Cassatts that spending extended periods in travel was considered a vital part of growing up, even for girls. Cassatt passed five years visiting Europe and came away with a love for France, especially Paris, and a keen desire to paint. Very likely because of the exposure she was sure to get to Bohemian ideas, her family, led mainly by her father, objected to her attending art school, but in a family with strong women, she went anyway. Frustrated by the restrictions on women at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Cassatt studied the old masters as an autodidact, and in 1866, she continued her learning by moving to Paris. Along with her came a family entourage, including her mother as chaperone. Because women were not allowed to study at the best Parisian schools, Cassatt studied independently instead, primarily with Jean-Léon Gérôme.

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Children Playing on the B…
Mary Cassatt
20×26 Fine …
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After struggling to survive as an artist in Paris–her wealthy, still objecting father would pay only for her basic needs, not any art supplies–and a brief return to Pennsylvania as the Franco-Prussian War broke out, Cassatt finally met success and stability as an artist by joining the impressionists, making new friends who helped her, like Pissaro and Degas, and showing her work regularly in their shows. She stuck with impressionism, even as most of the others moved on as the new century opened. Before retiring due to blindness in 1914, she managed to become her own opposite, an artistic conservative, opposing new movements like cubism, fauvism and post-impressionism. Until her death in 1926, she remained a staunch suffragist, contributing to the cause eagerly.

Apart from Mary Cassatt’s courageous determination to be an artist, her life and work stand out for two important reasons.

First, she painted subjects either ignored or misrepresented by other painters, even the progressive impressionists. Her women are not the idealized, rosy-cheeked dolls of Renoir, but real women with complex psychologies woven into their expressions. She painted women reading and caring for children, often in domestic settings. Her palette was soft-toned as were most of the impressionists, but her subjects seemed to present themselves to the world without simplicity. A painting of her mother as she read to her grandchildren shows an older woman, not so much filled with joy, as serious and determined that they should learn and understand. Paintings of her sister, Lydia, who was sickly and died young, often imply intense contemplation.

One of Cassatt’s best loved works is The Boating Party. The somber party being rowed across the water stands out for its clarity of a moment filled with uncertainty. A woman with a child observes with doubt and anticipation as a muscular man, seen only from the back, pulls the oars. It’s a scene rich with symbols and meaning. Where Cassatt really stands out for me is in the sacrifices she made to stay with her art. That’s my second point. All of the impressionists faced scorn from the dominant traditionalists, and most of them also faced intense poverty, especially Monet. But unlike many of them, Mary Cassatt could easily have packed it in and lived well on her family’s money without penalty–other than the sacrifice of her art. More to the point, she actually had to resist the objections of her father to continue as she did.

Seasoning this awareness of her determination and commitment is her obvious love of children and respect for motherhood. It can’t be known what factors led to her decisions about how to lead her life, but she never married or had children of her own. The joys of being a woman who raised a family of her own, so often expressed in her pictures, remained a vicarious emotion, which, fortunately for us, she shared in her enduring works of art.

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Child in Bonnet (detail)
Mary Cassatt
12×12 Fine Art Ar…
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Sara avec son chien.
Mary Cassatt
9×12 Gicle…
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Flowers In The Window
Mary Cassatt
12×16
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David Stone, Writer