Sunday, November 6, 2016

1844-1926: Mary Cassatt, American

Mary Cassatt was the first American woman to truly liberate her huge artistic power, but she had to move to Paris to do it. There, her art studies soon brought her into contact with a group of rebellious young artists, both male and female, who recognized her talent. Together they developed the style known as Impressionism, and Mary was one of its major talents, equal to Monet, Renoir and Pissarro.

Mary Cassatt
Self-Portrait, c. 1878
Grab from the Metropolitan

Edgar Degas
Portrait of Mary Cassatt, 1884

Background: The reason that Mary was able to achieve so much was that she came from a very fortunate background. She was born into a very wealthy and well-connected family in Philadelphia. One of her brothers, Alexander Johnston Cassatt, later became the president of the Pennsylvania railroad. Her mother Katherine believed women should be educated and socially active.

Training: Mary’s parents took her and her older sister to Europe when Mary was 7 years old, and they spent the next four years traveling in France and Germany, no doubt visiting the great art museums among other tourist sights. It seems likely this inspired in Mary a love of art, as she seems to have decided in her teens to make a career of art.

Most women in her situation would have settled for being fashionable socialites and marrying well. Mary's parents were surprised by her desire to make a career in art, and her father put up some resistance, but they allowed her to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts all during the Civil War, when Thomas Eakins was also a student there. Eakins later became the controversial director of the academy. About 20% of the students were girls, but they viewed art as a socially valuable talent, rather than a career path. Mary thought the instruction was slow, and she resented the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers. She dropped out without a degree.

At the age of 22, in 1866, she persuaded her father to let her continue her studies in Paris, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones. She studied privately with Jean-Leon Gerome, a great Neoclassical painter. A few months later, Eakins was also accepted by Gerome. Mary also studied privately with other accomplished artists.

In 1868 one of Mary's paintings was accepted for the Paris Salon, along with one other by an American woman.

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war put an end to Mary's studies in Paris. She returned home for awhile, but she was very dissatisfied.

In 1871, Mary caught a lucky break. The archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned her to paint copies of two paintings by Correggio that were hanging in Parma, Italy, and her advanced her the money to pay for her trip. It's quite a feather in Mary's cap that she was able to get back to Europe on her own. Her father was resisting her career, and she wanted to be self-supporting anyway. She traveled with another woman artist from Philadelphia.

In 1873, she visited the great museums of Spain, Belgium and Holland.

Career: In 1874, when she was 30, Mary decided to settle in Paris. She painted in the old-fashioned style, and she began to show regularly at the traditional Salon; however, she found their inflexible guidelines increasingly frustrating, and in 1877 the Salon refused to accept any of her submissions.

In 1877, Edgar Degas, the great painter of ballerinas and racehorses, invited Mary to exhibit with a group of rebellious artists who would later become known as the Impressionists. Degas is often seen as the hero in Mary's life because he encouraged her to experiment with a more modern style, and he introduced her to all the most advanced artists.

The first Impressionist show that Mary joined was in 1879. She exhibited 11 works, including some of her best. Some of these works sold, and it is noteworthy that Mary used part of the money she earned to buy a painting by Monet, who was in desperate straits at the time, as well as one by her friend Degas.

Mary showed in 4 of the 5 remaining of the Impressionist shows.

The first Impressionist exhibit in the US was held in 1886, and Mary's career began to take off in this country after 2 of her paintings were exhibited there. An old friend of Mary's, named Louisine Elder, married a wealthy man named Harry Havemeyer, and with Mary's guidance, the couple began collecting Impressionism on a large scale. The Havemeyers later donated much of their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which accounts for why this museum has so many of Cassatt's works.

Most of the Impressionist painters began to move on to more individual styles after 1886, and this was true of Mary as well, who began to experiment with a variety of techniques.

Most women artists before Cassatt frequently painted the members of their own family because they didn't have access to any other models, but most of them aspired to paint the same types of impersonal subjects as the men, since that was what was selling.

Mary, on the other hand, deliberately embraced home and family as her subject matter. I think this was deliberately stubborn. Mary was very resentful of patriarchal society and especially the way men dominated the art world. I think she set out to make the art world accept her despite choosing the humblest of subjects, the one least likely to command respect of the macho art world. Her paintings say "Women are important and fascinating, even when they are just drinking tea, or reading a book." And "women are especially important when they are interacting with babies, nurturing the future." These are things men didn't do, so men didn't think they were important. But Mary's skill was so great that even with the humblest subject, she commanded the art world's attention, developed a great reputation, and had high sales.

Of course, it didn't hurt that her paintings were easy to like and easy to understand, even in the less sophisticated art world of the US, and women collectors were naturally attracted to them.

In this country there was already an interest in women and children as subjects, but these were usually sentimental, commercial efforts designed to sell. Mary's paintings are intimate but they are not obviously sentimental. Her figures have a relaxed, unselfconscious dignity that raises them to the importance of religious figures, without being obviously religious. They are bold enough to be great art, and universal enough that people can read them as sentimental or religious if they want.

The 1890s was a good time for Mary's career. She became a role model for young American artists who sought her advice. Though the Impressionists had quit showing as a group, she was still part of their circle and current with all the latest trends.

Mary was commissioned to do a large mural for a World Exposition in Chicago in the 1890s. The subject was "Modern Woman" and showed women studying and pursuing fame. Unfortunately that mural was lost when the building was torn down.

Also during this decade, Mary worked in a form of printing known as drypoint. Her work is considered very innovative, but it is not exhibited much in museums.

In 1915 Mary showed 18 works in an exhibition supporting women's suffrage that was organized by her friend and collector Louisine Havemeyer. Interestingly, this brought her into conflict with her sister-in-law, who was anti-suffrage (?!), and boycotted the show, along with the rest of Philadelphia society. It is reported that Cassatt reacted by selling off some work destined for her heirs, which is how it got to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Even though Cassatt spent her career in Paris, only a few canvases of hers are shown at the Musée D'Orsay, while her work appears in the collections of many American museums.

Private life: Mary was always surrounded by women of her family and women artist friends. During her first study period of 3 years in Paris, she was accompanied by her mother and family friends.

Mary returned to the States for awhile in 1870, but she traveled to Italy the following, and she was accompanied by an artist named Emily Sartain.

In 1874, Mary settled in Paris, and her sister Lydia soon joined her. Lydia accompanied her went she went to the Louvre to copy the masters. Women did not go about unchaperoned in those days.

Amusingly, their parents joined them around 1877. I guess Mary's father had finally accepted her profession. They all shared one huge apartment in a fashionable part of Paris. I imagine Mary's studio was there as well, or perhaps in the same building.

Mary never married and there are no stories about her romantic life. She is described as having an outspoken personality that put some people off. To me it appears that she kept men at a distance because she was fearful of losing her independence. I should point out that her sister Lydia also remained single, and that it wasn't seen as unusual for single women to remain in the family home with their sisters.

Mary had a strong friendship with Edgar Degas, the painter of ballerinas and race horses, but he is known as a confirmed bachelor with a prickly personality. However, he came from a similar upper-class background and was a welcome dinner guest in the Cassatt home.

Our photos of Mary's work:

The Reader, 1877
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Lydia Reading the Morning Paper (No. 1), 1879
Joslyn / Jan's photo, 2013

Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, 1880
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2012

The Tea, c. 1880
MFA, Boston / Jan's photo, 2012

Miss Mary Ellison, 1880
National Gallery
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

The Cup of Tea, c. 1881
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2012

A Woman and a Girl Driving, 1881
Philadelphia / Jan's photo, 2012

Lydia at a Tapestry Frame, c. 1881
Flint / Jan's photo, 2013

Young Woman Sewing in a Garden, 1880-1882
Orsay / Jan's photo, 2015

The Loge, 1882
National Gallery / Jan's photo, 2010

Lilacs in a Window, c. 1883
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2012

Children Playing on the Beach, 1884
National Gallery
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Lady at the Tea Table, c. 1885
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Mother and Child, c. 1890
Wichita / Jan's photo, 2010

The Child's Bath, 1893
Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010

The Boating Party, 1894
National Gallery / Jan's photo, 2010

Summertime, 1894
Crystal Bridges / Jan's photo, 2012

Louisine Havemeyer and Her Daughter, Electra, 1895
Pastel on paper / Shelburne
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2012

Maternal Caress, 1896
Philadelphia / Jan's photo, 2010

Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), c. 1899
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2012

Spring: Margot Standing in a Garden, 1900
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Young Mother Sewing, 1900
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

The Reading Lesson, 1901
Dallas / Jan's photo, 2012

Family Group Reading, c. 1901
Photo by Dan L. Smith

The Caress, 1902
Smithsonian / Jan's photo, 2010

Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby, 1903
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2013

Ellen Mary Cassatt in a Big Blue Hat, c. 1905
Williams College / Jan's photo, 2012

Mother and Child, c. 1905
National Gallery / Jan's photo, 2010