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One of the major developments in American society over the last two decades has been the emergence of more and more women who demand and attain economic and political parity with men.
Mary Cassatt would have approved enthusiastically of the women’s movement. She herself became liberated at a time when many people believed, or pretended to believe, that a liberated woman was the same as a loose woman. Cassatt left her home in well-off Philadelphia and went to Paris, seen by many Americans as the capital of sin whatever its position might be in art. She proclaimed herself an independent, in art as in life. She never married, lived chiefly for her work, and from an early stage supported herself as a professional painter by selling the paintings she created.
Mary Cassatt believed deeply in what is today called women’s liberation. She contributed to the movement for women’s suffrage whenever she was asked, and was particularly proud, and went to considerable trouble, to paint a mural for the Women’s Building at the Chicago Exposition celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America. (Unfortunately, that work, the largest she ever executed, disappeared in the confusion of closing down the Exposition. It has never been seen since and must reasonably be assumed to have been destroyed.)
Mary Cassatt’s view on women’s liberation and and her own thoroughgoing practice of it are intrinsic to an understanding of her work, unlike, for example, Picasso’s Communism, which meant absolutely nothing to his art, or the Fascism professed by some of the Italian Futurists, which had only the most superficial connection to their work. But Cassatt’s feminism in thought and politics corresponds precisely to the feminism in her work. She painted men, occasionally, mostly members of her family. She did no still lifes and no landscapes except as incidental to her figure painting. The figures she usually painted were women and children, even infants in their mother’s arms.
Some contemporary feminist theory precludes having babies and raising children for the truly liberated woman. That view was certainly not widely practiced during Mary Cassatt’s lifetime. She lived from 1844 to 1926, and in those eight decades, whether in Pittsburgh, her birthplace; Philadelphia, where she came as a child; or in Paris, where she spent her working life, Cassatt lived in societies in which babies and child-care were essential parts of “feminism.” She was able to penetrate those areas of women’s lives without actually participating in them, and did so as perhaps no painter has before or since.
It is necessary only to think of her contemporary countrymen who supposedly “celebrated” womanhood and maternity in their art to appreciate her achievement. There is never a false step in her portrayal of mothers and children, no easy idealization of the notion of Woman or Maternity like that found in the work of painters like Abbott Thayer, who clearly had little idea of woman or maternity but a very good idea of what sentimental art buyers would be happy to buy.
Mary Cassatt painted what she saw in front of her, and the evanescent light in which she saw it, as was customary among her fellow-impressionists. She detested the term “impressionist,” and never used it, to the end of her days referring to her colleagues and herself as “independents.” Nevertheless it was her fidelity to the impressionist approach and her sensitivity that enabled her to paint psychological states as well as the state of the light, that allowed her to paint mothers and children in so uniquely penetrating a way.
With women she was, of course, at home, working from the inside. At that time the world of women by themselves or with other women was relatively hidden, but it is revealed to us in Mary Cassatt’s best pictures: an old woman pours tea; a young one leans forward in her box at the opera, enjoying everything she sees and hears; two women sit at tea; an older woman reads her paper; a younger one sews or works the tapestry frame; two women sit in a garden. These women of all ages are beings in themselves. They do not exist, as so many women in art and literature do, for the sake of the male artist, or the male hero, or the male buyer.
So Cassatt is set apart not only from Abbott Thayer but also from such great painters of mothers and children as Raphael. Raphael was a greater artist than Mary Cassatt, and for that matter greater than all of the impressionists, but in one important respect the Victorian American woman accomplished things the Renaissance Italian man did not.
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, now a part of Pittsburgh. She was the fourth surviving child of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Simpson Cassatt. Her father made money in real estate and stock brokerage but refused to devote himself wholeheartedly to either. He was mayor of Allegheny City for a while and held other posts of municipal trust. When Mary was five, the family moved to Philadelphia, which all her life Mary regarded as her American base, presumably because her brothers Aleck and Gardener lived there. Two years later, the Cassatts moved to Paris.
We do not know exactly when Mary Cassatt determined that she wanted to be an artist, but it was very early. She saw Paris at the age of seven and it was love at first sight. Two years later the family moved on to Heidelberg, then to Darmstadt, to further the engineering studies of brother Aleck. Another brother, Robert, died in Darmstadt in 1855, and the family returned to Philadelphia, stopping in Paris to see the Universal Exposition, which included an international art exhibition dominated by Ingres and Delacroix. Outside the official, imperial precincts, Gustave Courbet exhibited his own pictures in his Pavilion of Realism. All of this must have made an impression on the eleven-year-old Mary.
Six years later, in the first year of the Civil War, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the country’s most venerable and most revered art school. She stayed there four years, moving through the traditional curriculum of drawing from casts of antique sculpture, drawing from life, and copying paintings. Here she decided that copying Old Masters and studying their works was the best road to mastering art. In 1866, she moved to Paris, studied briefly in a studio conducted by an established artist, Charles Chaplin (no relation), and spent most of the next four years studying on her own in museums, copying Old Masters, and making sketching trips in the country.