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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 views on women's liberation 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 inthought 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 Gardner 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 the museums, copying Old Masters, and making sketching trips in the country.
Just as the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War sent Monet and Pissarro to London, where they would encounter the nature paintings of Constable and Turner, it sent Mary Cassatt back to Philadelphia. When the war ended, she returned to Europe, settling in Parma to study Correggio and Parmagianino. While in Parma she also attended the Academy to study engraving. In 1872 she had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon and the following year settled permanently in Paris, after study trips to Spain and Belgium. She met Louisine Waldron Elder whom she persuaded to buy a Degas pastel. This was the first impressionist picture to come to America, and the first acquisition of what became the H. O. Havemeyer Collection, one of the great foundation blocks of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.
For Mary Cassatt, however, the example of Degas, the precepts of Degas, and the friendship of Degas were more important than anything. When she met Degas and became his friend, she sealed her destiny as an artist. She had been accepted for five years in a row for the Paris Salon, but such was her admiration for Degas that at his invitation she abandoned the Salon, joined the independents and henceforth showed her work with them—when they could agree on an exhibition.
Degas had a greater influence on Cassatt's work than Correggio, Parmagianino, or anyone else. In Degas's paintings and drawings, Mary Cassatt immediately recognized what she herself had been working toward. In turn, the older artist saw in her a possible disciple, a highly talented junior, an exotic American and yet, at the same time, a fellow citizen of the same social milieu. Degas came from a family of bankers, and hence from the same general occupational sphere inhabited by Mary Cassatt's real-estate speculating, stock-brokering father, her corporately and socially successful brothers. (Her brother Aleck had married Lois Buchanan, niece of President Buchanan, while Mary was in Paris before the Franco-Prussian War.) The similarity of background, against which, to some degree, both rebelled without ever repudiating it, gave them common ground neither ever found with more bohemian members of the independents. Both believed in the art of the museums, and were mistrustful of casting themselves adrift on the moment. In many ways, they were made for each other.
Artistically, that is, socially, and intellectually. There is no evidence that any sort of romantic liaison ever existed. Degas and Cassatt were both Independents in more than their group artistic affiliation. Both were a little quirky, quick to respond to real or fancied offense, sensitive to what was due them and what they need not accept, resentful of being put upon by anyone. In addition, both were tied up with their respective families: Degas underwent severe financial strain to pay off the debts incurred by the failure of the family bank in which he had no interest and certainly no managerial concern. And Mary's father and mother and sister Lydia joined her in Paris and lived with her most of their lives. Thus, the sheer mechanics of any clandestine relationship would have been formidable, had there been the desire. We can probably assume that there was not.
For some decades Mary Cassatt pursued her career successfully on both sides of the Atlantic at once. However, she suffered the loss, one by one, of family members who were dear to her, the loss of Degas in the middle of World War I, the dimming, eventual loss of her own eyesight, and the surrender of her lifetime of productive working habits. Toward the end, she even broke with her oldest friend, Louisine Havemeyer. She died in 1926.
The Young Bride
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Portrait of Lydia Cassatt
The Cup of Tea
Lydia Leaning on Her Arms, Seated in a Loge
Woman and Child Driving
At the Opera
A Cup of Tea
Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly
Lydia Reading in a Garden
Miss Mary Ellison
Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child
Lydia Working at a Tapestry Frame
Susan Comforting the Baby
Two Young Ladies in a Loge
Lady at the Tea Table
Susan on a Balcony Holding a Dog
Young Woman in Black
Portrait of Mr. Alexander J. Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso
Two Children at the Seashore
Woman and Child (Mathilde and Robert)
Girl Arranging Her Hair
Little Girl in a Big Straw Hat and Pinafore
Young Woman Sewing in a Garden
Portrait of an Elderly Lady
Mother's Goodnight Kiss
Baby in a Dark Blue Suit
Emmie and Her Child
Young Woman Sewing
Baby's First Caress
In the Omnibus
Afternoon Tea Party
Woman with a Red Zinnia
Young Woman Picking Fruit
Baby Reading for an Apple
The Boating Party
The Banjo Lesson
Mother Feeding Her Child
Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder
After the Bath
Baby Getting Up from His Nap
Family Group Reading
Mother and Boy
Sara in a Green Bonnet
Woman in a Raspberry Costume
Margot Embracing Her Mother
Margot in Blue
Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby
Young Mother Sewing
Simone and Her Mother in a Garden
Mother Wearing a Sunflower on Her Dress
Woman and ChildAdmiring a Baby
Girl in Green
Mother and Child
Mother and Child in a Boat
Mother Nursing Her Baby
Young Mother and Two Children
Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun
Mother, Young Daughter, and Son