Sullivan Goss
AN AMERICAN GALLERY
Celebrating 27 Years of 19th, 20th and 21st Century American Art
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Mary Cassatt

(1884-1926)

American Member of the French Impressionist School; Noted Printmaker

By Danielle Peltakian

Famed for her mother and child paintings and skilled color prints, Mary Cassatt was one of three women and the only American to exhibit with the Impressionist group in late 19th century Paris, which members included the likes of Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born on May 23, 1844 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, to Katherine Kelso Johnston and Robert Simpson Cassatt. She was the youngest daughter of five siblings. The Cassatts were landed Pennsylvanian gentry who lived comfortably off of their father’s successful brokerage career. When she was seven, the family moved to Paris and then on to Germany. In 1855, the youngest Cassatt, Robbie, died from bone cancer, which prompted the family to move back to the United States and settle in Philadelphia.

After five years of an expressed interest in art, Mary Cassatt, at the age of 16, was ultimately granted permission by her parents to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA). During Cassatt’s day, both men and women were allowed to view art galleries and copy works of art side by side, which previously was prohibited. Therefore, her parents had to be somewhat liberal in their thoughts to permit their youngest daughter to pursue an interest in art making. During her years at PAFA, Cassatt was surrounded by a group of talented students which included the painter Thomas Eakins, sculptor Howard Roberts and the engraver Emily Sartain.

After years of pleading with her father to allow her to travel to Europe, Cassatt and her mother arrived in Paris for the Christmas season of 1865. At that time in Europe, the young artist was able to witness the advancements of the international art world first hand. Already showing promise as an artist, Cassatt was taken on as a private student by the most famous French Academy painter of the day, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Soon after her arrival, Cassatt grew tired of the Parisian art world, which to her, was centered on self-image, flattery and prejudice. Eventually, she traveled to the French countryside and joined her American friend, Eliza Haldeman, to study under genre painter Charles Chaplin and history painter Thomas Couture. By 1867, both Cassatt and Haldeman were traveling the French countryside and making sketches from nature. In 1868, their works were accepted into the Paris Salon.

By 1870, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war forced Cassatt to leave France and return to Philadelphia. This would be her last visit to the United States for the next 20 years. Struggling to gain success in the American art world, Cassatt yearned for the cultural opportunities available in Europe. The expatriate promptly returned to Europe and toured Italy and Spain in order to study the works of the Old Masters.

Having been rejected by the Paris Salon of 1875, she accepted Edgar Degas’ invitation to join the Impressionist group. Already familiar with Degas and an admirer of his work, Cassatt had her first exhibition with the Impressionists in 1879. This would be the beginning of a lifelong friendship of over 40 years between Cassatt and Degas. The details of their relationship have never fully been revealed. Close to the end of her life, Cassatt burned many of their letters to one another, further creating a mystery.

In 1877, her family moved to Paris to live closer to their daughter. The supportive relationship of the Cassatt family is in large part the inspiration for her famed mother and child pictures, which would bring her international success in the following years. It is around this time that she also displayed an interest in Japanese woodblock prints. She would later use similar techniques to create her own exquisite prints frequently referring to the mother and child theme.

By 1884, Cassatt purchased a chateau, Mesnil-Beaufresne, in the French countryside, which would become her retreat from the bustling Parisian art world in the later years of her life. Similar to the fate of her fellow Impressionist, Claude Monet, Cassatt’s eyesight deteriorated, as she grew older. In 1914, she was diagnosed as having cataracts in both eyes. After several failed surgeries, she went blind. For a woman who relied so much on her own independence and as an artist who relied on studies from nature, the loss of her eyesight was a devastating blow. She died on June 14, 1926 at her chateau. In the five years following her death, memorial exhibitions were held in both France and the United States.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Transgressing restrictions of a women’s place in society, Cassatt is heralded today as one of the most important Impressionist artists of the 19th century. She is difficult to place into a specific national school as she is vied over by both American and French cultures.

To the dismay of many art historians, Cassatt burned the majority of her early paintings in 1906. Her enrollment in the Antique Class at the PAFA suggests that she was a proficient draftsman. However, the limited availability of local models and works by the Old Masters proved Philadelphia to be an unfruitful environment for the young artist. She yearned for the challenges and adventures Europe had to offer.

Unwilling to submit to the gender boundaries of society, Cassatt pleaded with her father to allow her to travel to Europe. For several years her father appeared to reject her request, even reportedly stating that he “would almost rather see you [his daughter] dead” than have her become an artist in Paris. Travel to Europe elicited parental fears for their daughter’s moral reputation. Ultimately, the compassionate nature of Robert Cassatt allowed him to change his decision, permitting his youngest daughter to travel to Europe, but only if she went with her mother and several friends of the family.

Once in Europe, Cassatt was known to have spent hours copying the works of the Old Masters, most importantly those of Correggio and Parmigianino. In one of her earliest surviving works from 1872 titled Bacchante, the Romantic depiction of the female figure is heightened by rich, vibrant golds and greens typical of Renaissance artists. Although Cassatt studied under Gérôme, she never likened her painterly approach to the rigid, Neo-classical style of the French Academy. Instead, she admired the work of the French genre painters Edouard Frère and Paul Soyer. Studying under each of these artists at one point in her career, she learned to use nature and local villagers as models for her paintings. Though landscape scenes were integral to both genre painting and French Impressionism, Cassatt never excelled in this arena.

She was much more intrigued by the human form, especially the female figure, rather than the effects of light that the Impressionists so enthusiastically studied. In the years of her friendship with the Impressionists, especially Degas, Cassatt became interested in depicting the modern woman of the Parisian bourgeoisie. A key work of this period is her painting Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge of 1879. While painted in delicate brushstrokes of pastel pigments typical of the style of Renoir and Degas, the painting is also a comment on the vanity of late 19th century Parisian society.

In 1880, Cassatt began to paint her mother, sisters, nieces, and nephews. Labeled today as her “mother and child” pictures, these works were previously believed to be about Cassatt’s own longing for marriage and children. However, since the inception of feminist discourse, the reading of these works has shifted. They are now perceived to be comments on modernity and the arenas of femininity. These early portraits would be the first of her works in what art historian Griselda Pollock claims to be a discourse on “the ages of women: infancy, childhood, youth or coming of age, adulthood, maternity, maturity, and old age.”

A feminist reading of Cassatt’s work should not be overlooked. In her later years, she contributed works to an exhibition in New York that benefited the Suffragist movement. At the turn of the century, Cassatt was surrounded by the decadence and chauvinism of 19th-century Paris. Known to have purposefully chosen everyday, unattractive models and then dressed them in expensive gowns from local fashion boutiques, Cassatt created in her paintings a dichotomy between what Griselda Pollock would later argue to be “ugliness and beauty.” To further add to this concept, Cassatt painted her finely attired, “ugly” models in exquisite, airy pastels. Layered with conceptual meaning, these works, nevertheless, capture the intimate moments between the artist and the influential, strong women in her life.

Aside from her paintings, Cassatt also was a pioneering printmaker in the Western world. Like many of the French Impressionists, she had an affinity for Japanese woodblock prints and owned works by the 18th century Japanese artist, Utamaro. Interestingly, many of Cassatt’s prints of mother and child strongly resemble Utamaro’s series of the same subject matter.

Although she never was to receive critical acclaim from American audiences during her lifetime, Cassatt helped to shape America’s early art collections. In 1874, she began a lifelong friendship with Louisine Elder, who later married Henry O. Havemeyer. With the guidance of Cassatt, the couple created one of the most prestigious collections of art in American history. The Havemeyer collection has since been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the majority of the museum’s Impressionist works, which include several works by Cassatt, come from this collection.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1844 Mary Stevenson Cassatt born in Allegheny, PA to Katherine Kelso Johnston and Robert Simpson Cassatt
  • 1851-58 Family travels to Europe and briefly settles in Paris, Heidelberg and Darmstadt
  • 1860-2 Completes instruction in the Antique Class at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
  • 1863-5 Family moves to the Pennsylvania countryside during the American Civil War
  • 1865 Travels to Paris and becomes a private student of Jean-Léon Gérôme
  • 1866-67 Becomes a pupil of Charles Chaplin and studies under Edouard Frère and Paul Soyer
  • 1868 Cassatt’s The Mandolin is accepted into the Paris Salon
  • 1869 Rejected by the Paris Salon, tours the French and Italian countryside
  • 1870 Visits Rome with her mother and studies under Charles Belay
  • 1871 Briefly sets up a studio in Philadelphia, but eventually returns to Europe with friend, Emily Sartain
  • 1872 Travels to Parma, Italy then to Madrid and Seville, Spain
  • 1873 Tours Belgium, Holland, and Italy
  • 1874 Studies under Thomas Couture and meets Louisine Elder (later Havemeyer)
  • 1875 Paris Salon refuses one of Cassatt’s paintings
  • 1877 Ceases to exhibit at the Paris Salon and instead, joins the Impressionist group under Degas’ invitation
  • 1879 First exhibition with the Impressionists and begins to experiment with printing techniques
  • 1880 Stays with her family at Marly-le-Roi and begins to paint her nieces and nephews
  • 1886 Work is shown in the first major Impressionist exhibition in the Unites States
  • 1888 Completes first work in a series of mother and child pictures
  • 1889 Views a major exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints which further prompts interest in the medium
  • 1892 Completes mural depicting the “Modern Woman” for Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago
  • 1895 First solo-exhibition in the United States and mother dies
  • 1898 First visit to Unites States in over 20 years
  • 1901 Travels with Henry O. and Louisine Havemeyer on a collecting trip throughout Europe
  • 1904 Named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France
  • 1906 Burns early work
  • 1908 Makes last visit to the United States
  • 1910-11 Travels to Egypt
  • 1914 Contracts cataracts and undergoes many unsuccessful surgeries over the next few years
  • 1915 Participates in the Suffrage Loan Exhibition of Old Masters and Works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt
  • 1917 Degas dies
  • 1926 Dies on June 14 at Mesnil-Beaufresne
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Spain
  • Birmingham Museum of Art, AL
  • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
  • Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH
  • Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
  • Harvard University Art Museums, Boston, MA
  • Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
  • Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
  • Huntington Library, San Marino, CA
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
  • Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France
  • Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, France
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • San Diego Museum of Art, California
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
  • Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
  • Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, RI
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art , Philadelphia, PA
  • Portland Art Museum, OR
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • Major Solo-Exhibitions
  • 1891, 1893, 1908, 1910, 1914, 1924 Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, France
  • 1895, 1898, 1903, 1906, 1907, 1915, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1935 Galerie Durand-Ruel, New York, NY
  • 1898, 1909 St. Botolph Club, Boston, MA
  • 1907 Galerie Ambroise Vollard, Paris, France
  • 1907-8 City of Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England
  • 1921 Grolier Club, New York, NY
  • 1922 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • 1923 Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
  • 1926-7Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • 1927, 1960 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1931 Galerie A. M. Reitlinger, Paris, France
  • 1936, 1941-2 Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, OH
  • 1966 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • 1970, 1978, 1989-90 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • 1978 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
  • 1985 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1988 Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
  • 1997-8 R.S. Johnson Fine Art, Chicago, IL
  • 1998-99 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • Major Group-Exhibitions

  • 1868, 1870, 1872-6 Paris Salon, France
  • 1873Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, Cincinnati, OH
  • 1874, 1878 National Academy of Design, New York, NY
  • 1876-9, 1885, 1898-9, 1900-5, 1907, 1909-12, 1915-20 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1878, 1880, 1886, 1894 National Academy of Design, New York, NY
  • 1879-86 Impressionist Exhibition, Paris, France
  • 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Woman’s Building, Chicago, IL
  • 1915 M. Knoedler and Co., New York, NY
  • 1930 Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York, NY
  • 1951 Pasadena Art Institute, Pasadena, CA
  • 1976 Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN
  • 1988 Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
  • 1993-94 Musée Marmottan, Paris, France
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • Art Club of Philadelphia
  • Associate of National Academy of Design
  • Chevalier of Legion of Honor of France
  • Société des Peintres-Graveurs
  • Women’s Art Club of New York
  • VII. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. Adelson, Warren. Mary Cassatt: An American Observer. New York: Coe Kerr Gallery, 1984.
    2. 2. Clement, Russell T., et al. The Women Impressionists: A Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
    3. 3. Craze, Sophia. Mary Cassatt. North Dighton, MA: World Publications Group, 2003.
    4. 4. Hale, Nancy. Mary Cassatt: A Biography of the Great American Painter. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1975.
    5. 5. Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
    6. 6. Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York: Villard Books, 1994.
    7. 7. Mathews, Nancy Mowll ed. Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.
    8. 8. Mathews, Nancy Mowll ed. Cassatt: A Retrospective. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates Inc., 1996.
    9. 9. Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
    10. 10. Roudebush, Jay. Mary Cassatt. New York: Crown Publishers. Inc., 1979.
    11. 11. Sweet, Frederick A. Miss Mary Cassatt. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.