American Painter in Paris Essay - Critical Context

Ellen Wilson

Critical Context

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.