Mary Cassatt

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Using Impressionist techniques to create vivid, unsentimental portraits, Cassatt became one of America’s foremost painters at a time when the art world was regarded as an exclusively male domain.

Early Life

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was the second daughter and fourth child of Robert and Katherine Johnson Cassatt. Robert Cassatt earned a comfortable income from stock trading and real estate. In 1849, the family moved to Philadelphia, but in 1851, they left for an extended stay in Europe.

The Cassatts first lived in Paris, but in 1853 they moved to Germany, where the eldest son, Alexander, could study engineering, and another son, Robert, could receive medical attention. In 1855, Robert died and was buried in Darmstadt; many years later, Mary Cassatt would have his body moved to be interred with others of the family at her French château.

The family returned to the United States in 1855, settling first in the Pennsylvania countryside and then back in Philadelphia, where Mary enrolled, in 1861, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During her four years at the academy she received a solid, if uninspiring, education in artistic fundamentals. Students began with drawings from casts of statues, progressed to live models, and completed their training by making oil copies of paintings. The faults of this process were that the instructors were competent but undistinguished, and the paintings available for students were mediocre. At this time there were no major collections of art in the United States. Cassatt realized that to become an artist she needed exposure to the best in art, so she decided she must go to Europe.

In 1865, it was unheard of for a young woman to become a professional artist, and shocking for her to leave family and embark alone on a tour of Europe. Yet these were precisely the goals which Cassatt determined to achieve. There was considerable opposition from her family, to both her desire for an artistic career and the European visit, but she convinced them to accept her plans. This determination was characteristic of Cassatt, and its lifelong nature could be seen in her appearance. She was tall, thin, with fine but strong features and blue-gray eyes. Direct and forceful, she expressed her beliefs and opinions without reserve or regard for the sensibilities of others. Extremely energetic, she could work from dawn until the light faded but was able to put her paintings aside to care for her family; she herself never married. Such was the young woman who sailed for Europe in 1866, anticipating the first steps in her real artistic apprenticeship.

Life’s Work

In Paris, Cassatt enrolled in the École des Beaux Arts and studied briefly with a fashionable society painter. Soon she left to study independently, mainly visiting museums and galleries and copying their paintings.

In 1867, the Paris World’s Fair was held. Outside the official exhibitions, the painters Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet held a private show. Unlike conventional painters, Courbet and Manet chose subjects which were contemporary rather than classical and portrayed them with vivid, unsparing realism, precise in observation and presentation. Cassatt was deeply influenced; Manet had the most important impact on her work prior to her association with Edgar Degas.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Cassatt returned to Philadelphia, but in 1871 she was back in Europe, spending eight months in Parma, Italy, where she made an extensive study of the painter Antonio Allegri da Correggio. The result can be seen in her work, chiefly in her depictions of children, which owed much to Correggio’s paintings of Madonna and Child. She visited Spain, where she was particularly impressed by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velázquez and El Greco. She also visited the Netherlands, where the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, with his outstanding flesh tints and mastery of the human form, made a profound contribution to her style.

In 1873, Cassatt decided to settle permanently in Paris. Given the artistic ferment of the French capital and its central role in art, at the time it was the only natural place for a serious artist. In 1872, a painting of hers, signed “Mary Stevenson,” had been accepted by the Paris Salon. She continued to submit work to the Salon for several years but grew increasingly disenchanted with the Salon’s arbitrary and restrictive standards. One of her paintings was rejected because the background was too light; with a darkened background the painting was resubmitted and accepted.

Decisions such as this were one reason Cassatt ceased exhibiting in the Salon after 1877. The most important reason, however, was her discovery of the Impressionist movement and her association with Edgar Degas. The first Impressionist show was held in 1874, with works by such artists as Degas and Manet. The exhibition was fiercely attacked by traditional critics, but Cassatt perceived immediately the breakthrough which had been made. The Impressionist group contained widely diverse artists, who shared a common preoccupation with light—how to capture it, how to set it down on canvas. Their use of light and color was the key element in the movement, and after Cassatt viewed their work, light and color became essential in her work as well.

Degas had seen her work and admired it, and in 1877, they met. At forty-three, he was ten years older, an established artist known for his paintings and his sharp, often cutting remarks. The two had a stormy but productive relationship that lasted forty years. Although some have speculated on a romantic liaison between the two, it appears likely that their friendship, while close, was mainly professional. They had bitter arguments, over painting, politics, or personalities, but they always reconciled, usually at Cassatt’s initiative....

(The entire section is 2420 words.)