In American Painter in Paris, Wilson has written in an interesting and convincing manner that makes her enthusiasm for the world of art, as well as for the life of Mary Cassatt, of great appeal to the young adult audience. Because the author obviously enjoys her subject, she has researched it thoroughly; the bibliography contains approximately sixty-five sources. The reader has a sense of deep intimacy with the subject but is not weighted down by footnotes and quotations. Among her many sources of information, Wilson gathered personal letters from the family and friends of Cassatt and visited those who had kept her diaries or memoirs. The authenticity of Wilson’s research informs her prose.
Wilson chooses appropriate details to give an in-depth picture of Cassatt’s personality. At her sixteenth birthday party, Cassatt prepared her family for her desire to leave them and live in Paris to pursue her artistic career. Even though her father was determined that his daughter would not leave home, her persistence finally won out, and six years later he helped her to find a residence in Paris. This same persistence became obvious again when the Salon, the most prestigious group of art critics, ignored her work because she chose to develop her own style.
Another dimension to Cassatt’s art career was her choice of subjects. When her career was established in Paris, her family chose to leave their Pennsylvania home to live in France with her. At that time, her sister Lydia and other family members became the subjects of many of her paintings. Unfortunately, her mother’s illness...
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Wilson’s study is one of the most comprehensive, well-documented records of the life of Cassatt for young readers or for art lovers of any age. As such, it is a valuable addition to the collection of young adult literature. The artistic courage that Cassatt displayed is inspirational, particularly to young women. In the foreword of her book, Wilson speaks of Cassatt as a rebel against the conventional norms that kept women from competing in a man’s world, but she also describes her as a lady in every sense of the word. Wilson hastens to add that even more than Cassatt’s pride in succeeding where the competition was greatest was her pride in being American. Wilson’s biography surfaced in the 1970’s, a time when women—particularly in the United States—were focused on equal rights. Thus, the story of Cassatt’s struggles to make an impact in a male-dominated circle of artists was definitely appealing.
The motivation of the author in writing this biography seems to be threefold: to tell the life story of a well-known American painter, to describe the struggles of a young woman pursuing a career against great odds and achieving success in that career, and to show the powerful influence of family values. Wilson acts as an interpreter of the values reflected in Cassatt’s artwork, evaluating the paintings of friends, family members, and mother-child interactions. It is clear from Wilson’s account that family concerns were the central motivation in Cassatt’s life beyond the world of art, and it is only natural that what was most important to her was what she recorded for all to see.