Mary Cassat: an American in Paris
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)