Mary Cas­sat: an Amer­i­can in Paris

ArabAd - - CONTENTS - By Mona Iskan­dar

Life was not easy for women who wanted to make art their ca­reer in the 19th and early 20th cen­tury. They not only had to face the dis­ap­proval of their so­ci­ety, but also con­front their hus­bands and par­ents, where Mary Cassatt’s fa­ther said he would rather see his daugh­ter dead than fre­quent the bo­hemi­ans of the art world, who were de­mand­ing equal­ity among the sexes and women’s right to vote. These women had also to fight the ag­gres­sive­ness of other artists and art stu­dents, mostly male, who felt that women were in­trud­ing on a do­main that be­longed ex­clu­sively to their sex.

This was what Mary Cassatt had to face when she de­cided to take up art as a ca­reer.

She was born in 1844 in Penn­syl­va­nia, U.S.A. in a well to do fam­ily, whose cul­tured mother en­cour­aged her chil­dren to study. In the 1850s, Cassatt’s par­ents took their chil­dren to Europe and lived there for sev­eral years.

Though dis­cour­aged from pur­su­ing a ca­reer, Cassatt en­rolled in the “Penn­syl­va­nia Academy of the Fine Arts” when she was only six­teen. The hos­til­ity of the male stu­dents and the medi­ocre cour­ses of­fered de­cided her to travel to Europe to study the old mas­ters, de­spite the strong ob­jec­tions of her fa­ther. She set sail for Paris in 1866, ac­com­pa­nied by her mother, sis­ter Ly­dia and fam­ily friends as chap­er­ons.

In Paris, women were also not ad­mit­ted to the “Ecole des Beaux-arts” (not un­til 1897), so she started tak­ing pri­vate les­sons and copy­ing mas­ter­pieces at the Lou­vre. As it was not well seen for women to go to cafés to meet other artists, they would mix at the Lou­vre mu­seum.

In 1868, one of Cassatt’s paint­ings,

’The Man­dolin Player’ was ac­cepted at the pres­ti­gious ‘Paris Sa­lon’, the only Amer­i­can fe­male artist to be shown.

In 1870, at the out­break of the Franco-prus­sian war, she had to go back to the U.S, to live with her par­ents. Her fa­ther would give her enough money to live but not to buy art sup­plies. As she was con­sid­er­ing giv­ing up paint­ing, she was con­tacted and com­mis­sioned by the arch­bishop of Pitts­burgh to paint copies of two works by the Ital­ian master Cor­reg­gio. Elated, Cassatt left im­me­di­ately for Europe. Af­ter fin­ish­ing her as­sign­ment in Rome, she de­cided to stay in Europe, and con­tinue her stud­ies in Spain, Bel­gium and Rome, but fi­nally came back to live in Paris. She started to be recog­nised and one of her paint­ings was ac­cepted in the Paris Sa­lon. Dur­ing this pe­riod, Paris was pass­ing through an artis­tic rev­o­lu­tion with dar­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion; the Im­pres­sion­ist move­ment had started.

Cassatt had be­come friends with the French avant-garde artist Edgar De­gas who was one of the founders of Im­pres­sion­ism. In 1877, De­gas in­vited her to ex­hibit with the Im­pres­sion­ists, who liked to work out­doors and used bright colours. She ac­cepted and started pre­par­ing new works for the 1879 ex­hi­bi­tion.

De­gas had a great in­flu­ence on Cassatt and helped her get away from con­ven­tional tech­niques. Her style changed, be­com­ing more spon­ta­neous, and she started tak­ing a sketch­book with her wher­ever she went. The 1879 ex­hi­bi­tion was a great suc­cess and Cassatt sold well. She also par­tic­i­pated at the 1880 and the 1881 shows, and stayed with the Im­pres­sion­ists till 1886, af­ter which her style changed, and she moved away from Im­pres­sion­ism. By the 1890s,

she had ma­tured, gained pop­u­lar­ity, and sold well.

While the Im­pres­sion­ists were paint­ing land­scapes and street scenes, Cassatt be­came fa­mous for her por­traits, es­pe­cially of women in their ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties. Her por­traits were un­con­ven­tional, nat­u­ral and truth­ful. She per­fected a sim­pler and more straight­for­ward style, and af­ter 1900 con­cen­trated mainly on ‘mother and child’ themes.

In 1894, Cassatt bought a chateau in the Oise depart­ment in north­ern France and com­muted be­tween her coun­try home and Paris.

A trip to Egypt with her brother in 1910 was a turn­ing point in her life. The great art of the an­cients made her ques­tion her own tal­ent, and soon af­ter, her brother died from an ill­ness he con­tracted dur­ing their trip. This af­fected her so much that for two years she could not work.

Af­ter 1890, Cassatt started los­ing her eye­sight as her di­a­betes af­fected her vi­sion, and by 1914 she stopped work­ing and the last eleven years of her life, she was al­most com­pletely blind. She be­came an ac­tive fem­i­nist and an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for women, cam­paign­ing for their right to vote. Her con­vic­tions showed in her work, where in ‘Ly­dia Read­ing the Morn­ing Pa­per’, she in­sin­u­ated that women were lit­er­ate and in­ter­ested in other than do­mes­tic chores.

Cassatt, who died in 1926, be­came fa­mous for her por­traits of women, moth­ers and chil­dren. She was also ad­mired for her tech­ni­cal skills and psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sight, re­veal­ing the pri­vate and so­cial lives of women and the bond be­tween mother and child. She also in­tro­duced Im­pres­sion­ism to the US, urg­ing her wealthy friends to buy these Avant-garde works, in­flu­enc­ing Amer­i­can taste in art.

Sleepy Thomas, suck­ing his thumb (1894- 1895)

In the opera box (1877-1878)

Two women pick­ing fruits (1892)

Lit­tle girl in the blue ar­cm­chair (1877-1878)

In the om­nibus (1890-1895)

The letter (1890-91)

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