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Cassatt, Mary (1844-1926)

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

Artist

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A Taste of Europe. Born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Mary Stevenson Cassatt enlisted privilege in the service of artistic endeavor. She spent much of her adult life in France, where she was the only American artist who frequented the inner circles of the French Impressionists. The roots of Cassatts success may be traced to a childhood rich in culture and creature comforts. Pittsburgh in the mid nineteenth century boasted no more solid citizens than the investment banker Robert Simpson Cassatt and his wife, Katherine Johnston Cassatt. Born on 22 May 1844, Mary Cassatt was one of five children; she had just turned seven when the family embarked on a four-year visit to Europe. On their return the Cassatts settled in Philadelphiathen the second-largest city in America. At age sixteen Mary enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art; six years later, having exhausted the academys offerings, she ventured to Paris in the company of her friend and fellow art student Eliza Haldeman. As the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts was closed to women, Cassatt was forced to pursue her studies in private lessons and in the artist colonies sprinkled across the French countryside.

The Young Artist. Americans have a way of thinking work is nothing, Cassatt observed near the end of her career. Come out and play they say. Blessed with money and leisure, Cassatt chose work over play. Having returned home in 1870, Cassatt moved with her family from Philadelphia to Altoona, Pennsylvania, where she struggled to maintain her artistic momentum away from the centers of cultural influence. New York galleries failed to sell her paintings, and a substantial collection of her early work, on display in a Chicago gallery, burned up in the Great Fire of 1871. That December twenty-seven-year-old Cassatt sailed again for Europeand embarked on a period marked by both productivity and periodic self-doubt. In Italy, Spain, and France Cassatt acquired artistic technique by studying the old masters and mingling with the new. She developed a particular talent for painting women, both in portraits and the more informal pictures that she considered a higher form of art. In 1874 Ida, Cassatts painting of a red-haired woman, so impressed Edgar Degas that he declared its unknown artist to be someone who feels as I do. Although Ida had gained a spot in that years Paris Salonthe official annual exhibition of fine artCassatt remained at odds with the art establishment, criticized for her sloppy brushwork and rambunctious use of color. Not until 1877, when Degas invited her to exhibit with the Independents (later known as the Impressionists), did Cassatt find a true home abroad.

Among the Impressionists. Impressionism liberated Cassatt from artistic convention. In early paintings Cassatt had strained for mood by draping sitters in exotic costumes or placing subjects in romantic settings. Now, however, Cassatt began to uncover atmosphere in the commonplace and to achieve fresh effects with experimental brush and colorwork rather than artificial composition. Cassatts parents and sister joined her overseas in 1877; her brother and his children visited often. Increasingly, Cassatt employed her relatives as models. Works such as The Cup ofTea or Mrs. Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren, both exhibited at the 1881 Impres-sionist show, stand as representative glimpses into the Cassatt family circle. Cassatts many mother-and-child compositions of the 1880s and 1890samong them, Gardner Held by His Mother (1888), Mothers Goodnight Kiss (1888), At the Window (1889), Helene de Septeuil (1889), Baby on His Mothers Arm, Sucking His Finger (1889), Mother and Child (1890), and The Bath (1890-1891)depict a full range of domestic activity. Settled in Paris, surrounded by friends and family, Cassatt could half-jokingly describe her own domestic routine as housekeeping, painting & oyster frying. Whatever her merits as housekeeper or cook, by the 1890s Cassatts artistic talents had earned her the regard of her adopted land. Mary is at work again, intent on fame & money she says, & counts on her fellow country men now that she has made a reputation here, Cassatts mother commented in 1891. The following year Cassatt finally received a summons from the American art establishment.

A Modern Woman. In 1892 the organizers of the upcoming Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago commissioned Cassatt to paint a murai for the Womans Building. Cassatt addressed her subject, Modem Woman, in three allegorical panels: Young Girls Pursuing Fame, Arts, Music, Dancing, and the centerpiece, Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science. The mural was abstract, symbolic, and, Cassatt hoped, as bright, as gay, as amusing as possible. When a friend protested that Cassatt had depicted woman apart from her relations to man, Cassatt countered that men were to be painted in ali their vigour on the walls of the other buildings. In her corner of the Womans Building, the artist hoped to capture the sweetness of childhood, the charm of womanhood. As she declared, if I have not conveyed some sense of that charm, in one word if I have not been absolutely feminine, then I have failed. Like so many of the other artistic fancies on display in Chicago, Cassatts murai was dismantled at the dose of the fair in 1893 and subsequently lost.

Final Years. To the end Cassatt continued to paint women at work, at home, and at play. An advocate of womens rights, she held women responsible for their own advancement. American women have been spoiled, treated and indulged like children, she observed late in life; they must wake up to their duties. By 1915 eye trouble forced Cassatt to give painting. She remained a fixture of American expatriate society for another decade, dying at her country home outside Paris on 14 June 1926.

Sources

Nancy Hale, Mary Cassatt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975);

Nancy Mowll Mathews, Mary Cassatt (New York: Abrams, 1987);

Mathews, ed., Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters (New York: Ab-beville Press, 1984).

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Cassatt, Mary

Mary Cassatt

Born: May 23, 1845
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: June 14, 1926
Mesnil-Beaufresne, France

American painter and artist

American painter Mary Cassatt is considered a member of the French impressionists, a nineteenth-century style that emphasized impressions of scenes or objects. Best known for her series of paintings of a mother and child, she also portrayed fashionable society.

Early life and career

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 23, 1845, the second of Robert and Katherine Johnson Cassatt's four children. As a child she lived for a time in France. The family then moved to Germany so that one son could pursue his studies in engineering, while another son could gain special medical attention. Upon returning to the United States in 1855, Mary studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1866, against her father's wishes, she began her travels in Italy, Spain, and Holland. She finally settled in Paris, France, where she shocked her parents by revealing her intentions to pursue a career as a painter.

In 1866 Cassatt began her studies in France, where she came to know other famed French painters, such as Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture (18151879). After a pair of rejections, she exhibited at the Salon (French art galleries) and met the famed painter Edgar Degas (18341917), who later became her mentor (advisor).

Soaring career

Despite Cassatt's success at the Salon, her heart lay with the impressionists, and in 1877, at Degas's suggestion, she joined the group and exhibited with them in 1879. Her work sold well, particularly in Philadelphia, and she in turn bought paintings by the French impressionists. She also helped American friends, such as the Havemeyers, form their collections of impressionist paintings. Cassatt remained strongly American, as do many expatriates (those living abroad). She wrote the American painter J. Alden Weir (18521919) that "at some future time I shall see New York the artists' ground."

Cassatt's brother, Alexander, brought his family to Paris in 1880, the first of many trips. Although she never married, she was enchanted by her nieces and nephews and excelled in painting children, who dominate her subject matter. Although her early works were done in an impressionist style, she remains known as the painter and poet of the nursery.

Painting style

Cassatt stopped being an impressionist painter midway through her career. Her early works portray the delicacy, the effects, the play of light and shadow of the style, but she never seemed to use broken colors and her use of complementary colors was slight. Paintings like La Lo have impressionistic qualities and have the instant effect of being caught out of the corner of the eye. Her paintings of mothers and children, however, are figurative and three-dimensional. The drawing is classical and complete, and the color, far from being light and separated into its component parts, is flat and sometimes rather sharp, much like the Japanese prints that influenced her so much. These careful figure studies, completely finished, seem to exist entirely in the atmosphere of the nursery, with no sound except the little cries.

The paintings of Mary Cassatt, filled with light and joy, give a false impression of this strong-minded and somewhat difficult woman. She was at her best in her relations with other artists, for only in this environment did she consider herself among her intellectual equals. In later life she suffered from ill health and failing eyesight and was totally blind at her death. She died in her home at Mesnil-Beaufresne, France, on June 14, 1926.

For More Information

Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Sills, Leslie. Visions: Stories about Women Artists. Morton Grove, IL: A. Whitman, 1993.

Sweet, Frederick A. Miss Mary Cassatt, Impressionist from Pennsylvania. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

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Cassatt, Mary (1844–1926)

Cassatt, Mary (18441926)


Mary Cassatt's paintings of mothers and children revolutionized the genre at the end of the nineteenth century. Cassatt employed formal devices such as pattern and color to explore the sensual nature of the mother-child relationship, and in doing so rejected the overly sentimental approach to the subject taken by many of her contemporaries.

Mary Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a wealthy banker. As a child, she spent five years traveling in Europe with her family, living in Paris, Heidelberg, and Darmstadt. At sixteen, she began her art studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After this initial training, Cassatt traveled to Paris where she studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin, Paul Soyer, and Thomas Couture. From 1870 to 1874 she also studied and painted in Italy and Spain. By 1877 Cassatt had settled definitively in Paris, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. Because of her innovative manipulations of space, deft painting technique, and modern subject matter, Cassatt was asked to exhibit with the Impressionists. At the beginning of her career, Cassatt created paintings of independent, modern women much like herself. She also painted several perceptive representations of children, such as Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878). However, by 1885 Cassatt was painting scenes of mothers and children almost exclusively. Art historians have speculated that Cassatt turned to this theme because of a changing social climate, which encouraged women to paint what were considered appropriate feminine subjects. However, her paintings of mothers and children made Cassatt famous. She was no doubt eager to capitalize on this success by recreating similar compositions. At the same time, Cassatt's most penetrating depictions of mothers and children were contemporaneous with new theories about child psychology and the relationship between mother and child.

Cassatt's best-known painting of maternal devotion is The Bath (1891), which depicts a mother washing her child's foot. Absorbed in this intimate moment, neither mother nor child are aware of the viewer's presence. Cassatt uses an elevated vantage point, dramatic cropping, and contrasting patterns to accentuate the physical closeness of mother and child, as well as to draw attention to the child's naked flesh. In other pictures, such as Maternal Caress (1896), bold strokes of paint knit together the child's tiny hand and the mother's cheek, suggesting the organic unity of the two figures. Cassatt also created a series of technically innovative color prints, showing women bathing, dressing, and playing with children. In paintings such as Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) (c. 1899), Cassatt positioned her models in the conventional pose of the Madonna and Child, the mirror behind the figures standing in as a halo. Modern motherhood is therefore equated with divinity in Cassatt's late works.

After falling out of fashion, Cassatt's work was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1970s. This initial scholarly reappraisal of Cassatt has led to her increased visibility in museum displays and art history textbooks. Cassatt's images of mothers and children are particularly popular with the general public and are reproduced on a variety of items from posters and note cards to tea towels and tote bags. A 1998 retrospective of Cassatt's work was one of the most well-attended museum exhibitions of that year.

See also: Images of Childhood; Madonna, Secular; Mothering and Motherhood .

bibliography

Mathews, Nancy Mowll. 1987. Mary Cassatt. New York: Abrams, in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Nochlin, Linda. 1999. "Mary Cassatt's Modernity." In Representing Women, pp. 180215. London: Thames and Hudson.

Pollock, Griselda. 1980. Mary Cassatt. London: Jupiter Books.

A. Cassandra Albinson

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Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926), an American painter, is considered a member of the French impressionist group. Best known for her series of paintings of a mother and child, she also portrayed fashionable society.

Mary Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on May 23, 1845. As a child, she lived for a time in France. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1866 she began her travels in Italy, Spain, and Holland, finally settling in Paris. There she exhibited at the Salon and met Edgar Degas, who was her real teacher, as she was his only pupil.

Despite her success at the Salon, Cassatt's sympathies lay with the impressionists, and in 1877 at Degas's suggestion she joined the group and exhibited with them in 1879. Her work sold well, particularly in Philadelphia, and she in turn bought paintings by the French impressionists. She also helped American friends, such as the Havemeyers, form their collections of impressionist paintings. Cassatt remained strongly American in her sentiments, as many expatriates do, and she wrote the American painter J. Alden Weir that "at some future time I shall see New York the artists' ground."

Cassatt's brother, Alexander, brought his family to Paris in 1880, the first of many trips. Although she never married, she was enchanted by her nieces and nephews and excelled in painting children, who dominate her subject matter. Her early work, done with the impressionists, is probably her best, but she remains known as the painter and poet of the nursery.

The paintings of Mary Cassatt, filled with light and joy, give a false impression of this strong-minded and somewhat difficult woman. She was at her best in her relations with other artists, for only in this environment did she consider herself among her intellectual equals. In later life she suffered from ill health and failing eyesight and was totally blind at her death. She died in her château at Mesnil-Beaufresne on June 14, 1926.

Painting Style

Midway in her career Cassatt ceased to be an impressionist painter. Her early works have the delicacy, the atmospheric effects, the play of light and shadow associated with the style, but she never used broken color and her use of complementary colors was slight. Paintings like La Lo are indeed impressionist pictures and have the characteristic instantaneous effect of being caught out of the corner of the eye. But her paintings of mothers and children are fully realized and three-dimensional; the drawing is classical and complete; and the color, far from being light and separated into its component parts, is flat and sometimes rather acid, like the Japanese prints which influenced her so much. These careful figure studies, completely rendered, in no way reflect the infinite variety of nature or the passing world, as the paintings of the impressionists did; they exist entirely in the hothouse atmosphere of the nursery, with no sound except the little cries.

Further Reading

The only thorough treatment of Mary Cassatt's life is Frederick A. Sweet's excellent Miss Mary Cassatt, Impressionist from Pennsylvania (1966). Sweet had access to family letters and papers that provide the basis for a new understanding of her character. Other biographies include Forbes Watson, Mary Cassatt (1932), and Julia M. H. Carson, Mary Cassatt (1966). For general background see John Rewald, The History of Impressionism (1946; rev. ed. 1961). □

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Cassatt, Mary

Mary Cassatt (kəsăt´), 1844–1926, American figure painter and etcher, b. Pittsburgh. Most of her life was spent in France, where she was greatly influenced by her great French contemporaries, particularly Manet and Degas, whose friendship and esteem she enjoyed. She allied herself with the impressionists early in her career. Motherhood was Cassatt's most frequent subject. Her pictures are notable for their refreshing simplicity, vigorous treatment, and pleasing color. She excelled also as a pastelist and etcher, and her drypoints and color prints are greatly admired. She is well represented in public and private galleries in the United States. Her best-known pictures include several versions of Mother and Child (Metropolitan Mus.; Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston; Worcester, Mass., Art Mus.); Lady at the Tea-Table (Metropolitan Mus.); Modern Women, a mural painted for the Women's Building of the Chicago exposition; and a portrait of the artist's mother.

See catalog by A. D. Breeskin (1970, rev. ed. 1980); N. M. Mathews, ed., Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters (1984); N. Hale, Mary Cassatt (1987); N. M. Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life (1994).

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Cassatt, Mary

Cassatt, Mary (1845–1926) French painter and printmaker, b. USA. She was influenced by Degas and impressionism. Her finest paintings include The Bath (1892). She also made many fine drypoint and aquatint studies of domestic life.

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