Cassatt, Mary (1844–1926)

views updated May 21 2018

Cassatt, Mary (1844–1926)

American artist and grande dame of the Impressionists. Born Mary Stevenson Cassatt in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, on May 22, 1844; died at Château de Beaufresne (Oise), France, on June 14, 1926; fourth child of Robert Simpson Cassatt and Katherine Kelso Johnston; enrolled in Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1861; graduated, 1865; never married; no children.

Moved to Paris, France (1866); first painting exhibited in the Salon, Paris (1868); had work in Salon exhibits (1872–76); met Edgar Degas (1877); exhibited with Impressionists (1879–86); submitted murals for Women's Building, Chicago World's Fair (1893); held first one-woman show, Paris (1893); bought Château de Beaufresne (early 1890s); named honorary president of Paris Art League (1904); awarded Lippincott Prize by the Pennsylvania Academy and the N.W. Harris Prize by the Art Institute of Chicago (1904); received France's Legion of Honor (1904);toured Egypt (1910); awarded the Gold Medal of Honor by the Pennsylvania Academy (1914).

In 1866, 22-year-old Mary Cassatt told her father that she wanted to study art in Paris. "I would rather see you dead," he responded. A few months later, the determined, self-assured young woman took up residence in France where she lived and worked for the rest of her life. From a traditional Victorian upper-middle-class family, Cassatt rejected the colorful bohemian lifestyle common among her Parisian artist friends. Yet she joined the now famous Impressionist painters, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, who rebelled against the officially sanctioned "true" art accorded the blessing of the French Academy of Fine Arts. "I recognized my true masters," Cassatt recalled. "I hated conventional art. Now I began to live."

The Cassatt family was typically bourgeois, financially comfortable, and unremarkable. Robert Cassatt was a moderately successful stockbroker and one-time mayor of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, restless and unfocused. Katherine Cassatt was more intelligent than he, well-read, aloof, and rather tart. Mary inherited her father's stubbornness and her mother's sharp-edged personality. One of five children (three boys, two girls), Cassatt was brought up in a closely knit family. In the fall of 1851, the Cassatts sailed for Europe, living in Paris and Germany for four years. According to Cassatt's biographer Nancy Hale : "It was in France that she learned art could be an exciting cultural issue." From Paris, the family moved to Heidelberg, then to Darmstadt where Alexander (Aleck), the eldest son, could study engineering in the excellent German schools. However, when another son, Robert, age 13, died in Darmstadt in 1855, the family returned to Paris and sailed home to Philadelphia. But the lure of Paris remained strong; to Cassatt, "Paris is the place where people are happy." By contrast, Philadelphia was a cultural wasteland in her eyes, an opinion that determined her future decisions.

Once she had decided to be an artist, Cassatt persuaded her father to allow her to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He agreed only because he hoped this would improve Cassatt's marriage prospects. If she were adept at drawing and painting, Robert Cassatt reasoned, his daughter, who was rather plain, might attract suitors. Critical of her training at the Academy, Mary claimed it was too academic and restrictive. However, she

acquired a solid grounding in technique and graduated at the head of the class of women students in 1865. Confident in her ability and choice of career, she approached her father about furthering her studies in Europe. According to her biographers, she was "not a very inventive painter" and needed strong influences around her. She found her inspiration in Paris, the cultural capital of Europe, and among the most brilliant artists of the time, the Impressionists.

Cassatt lived with family friends in Paris, not on her own. It was unusual for any young, unmarried woman at that time to live separated from her family. Although Robert Cassatt was convinced that women lacked common sense, he "trusted" his daughter, meaning that since she was "plain," she would not attract male admirers. Actually Cassatt preferred men to women as friends. She was often described as having a "man's mind" and as viewing art from a male perspective. She considered this a compliment. In fact, her male friends were fellow artists for whom she felt no sexual attraction, only a professional attachment. Mary Cassatt never regarded herself as a "dabbler" in art, an amateur; lady-like timidity and modesty were not part of her character. In a letter to her brother Aleck's fiancée, Lois Buchanan (niece of President Buchanan), Cassatt compares herself to an American friend, Miss Gordon, who, though she "calls herself a painter she is only an amateur and you must know how we professionals despise amateurs." And, writes Hale, "it was on that mysterious, indisputable sense of superiority that she operated for the rest of her life." Buchanan resented Cassatt's superior attitude and envied her talent, which afforded her so much freedom.

It was not that her pictures told about her, so much as that they were her; just as the other side of the moon, hidden, is still the moon.

—Nancy Hale

In 1870, Cassatt reluctantly returned to Philadelphia when the Franco-Prussian War forced foreigners to leave France. Convinced that her paintings would sell in America but not in philistine Philadelphia, she traveled to Chicago in 1871, to consult with an art dealer. The devastating Chicago fire of that year destroyed her commercial hopes and her pictures. With peace restored, Cassatt sailed for Europe in 1872. Rather than remain in Paris, she went to Italy to further her studies of the great Masters. In Parma, she was particularly impressed with the work of Correggio whose renderings of cherubs and babies had a great influence on her future work. During her two years in Italy and Spain, Cassatt slowly developed a personal technique that would bring her recognition from the official Paris art world and the group of artists calling themselves the Independents.

In 1872, Mary Cassatt submitted a work done in Spain, During the Carnival, signed Mary Stevenson, to the Paris Salon. For the next four years, she exhibited in the prestigious Salon shows. Her portrait, Ida, in the 1874 exhibit was the first to carry her signature, Mary Cassatt. Edgar Degas, a member of the Independents-impressionists, attended the exhibit; on seeing Cassatt's work, he said, "There is someone who feels as I do." He was right. Cassatt admired the work of this group but hesitated to join a movement that was rejected by the art critics of the Salon and ridiculed by the public. She was overtly ambitious, craving recognition and financial security. But without consciously modifying her technique, Cassatt was becoming an Impressionist painter. When one of her two submissions to the 1874 Salon was rejected by the jury panel as being "too bright," she dutifully toned it down, and it was accepted the next year. However, having to conform to conventional art standards disgusted her, and when the Salon jury rejected a painting in 1877, she never submitted another.

Mary Cassatt asserted her independence, artistic and social, in an age when young women were traditionally tightly corseted, both literally and figuratively. Stubborn, opinionated, and certain of her talent, Cassatt made a life of her own choosing while remaining a member of her rather dull, bourgeois family. In 1877, the Cassatts, including her sister Lydia (age 40), moved to Paris, renting a large apartment in Montmartre, an artistic district of Paris. The Cassatts had not come to Paris to absorb culture; money and position defined who one was. Although Mary had exhibited in Salon shows and had sold some of her pictures, Robert Cassatt did not consider this sufficient. One painted to make money, why else paint? His son Aleck was a vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Gardner, the youngest child, was in banking, both very wealthy men. Cassatt, too, was proud of her brothers, but she rebelled against painting "pot-boilers" to earn money.

Mary accepted, and never resented, the more restricted lifestyle imposed on her. Family meant love and security. Her profession meant freedom, creation, and recognition. She comfortably inhabited these two worlds, distinct and fulfilling. Her interest in the Impressionists provided stimulus for her art and for friendships. In 1877, Cassatt finally met Degas, who asked her to join the Impressionist group. "I accepted with joy," she recalled. She was one of the few Americans in Paris who sincerely appreciated the importance of this movement. Mary had learned much by copying the Old Masters in the Louvre museum, and she learned from Degas, too. "He was the first to recognize what I had attempted to do. He knew," she stated. Degas and Cassatt were similar in many ways; they were dogmatic, egocentric, bad-tempered, and strong-willed. Good breeding, intelligence, and taste were also important to these prickly personalities.

From the mid-1870s, Cassatt turned from the Old Masters for inspiration to her contemporaries—Manet, Sisley, Pissarro, Monet, and Renoir. Their originality and rebellion against academically sanctioned art bound them together. Unlike their fellow artists, however, Cassatt and Degas lived lives of respectability and decorum, eschewing sexual or romantic liaisons. Cassatt

sought equality, not love, from Degas. There is no evidence of an affair, something Cassatt vehemently denied. "What a repulsive idea," she declared. Degas was an astute critic of Cassatt's work, suggesting to her "the maternal theme which was to occupy her talents to some degree for the rest of her career." She wanted to learn from Degas, to share ideas about art, but she would not be dependent on him. She had liberated herself from societal strictures, from marriage, because she knew that "a woman artist must be … capable of making the primary sacrifices."

Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas exhibited with the Impressionists from 1879 to 1886, adhering to the Impressionist principle of not showing in juried exhibits. Her experience in 1878 confirmed her objections to juries. Her painting, The Blue Room, for which Degas painted some of the background, was rejected for the American section of the Great Exhibition in Paris by a jury of three men, "of whom one was a pharmacist," Cassatt fumed. In 1879, she exhibited her marvelous work, The Loge, a sensitive depiction of Lydia in a box at the Opéra. Several paintings of Lydia and of Katherine Cassatt and her grandchildren earned good reviews from French critics. Mary's reputation as an Impressionist was made in France. But not in America where the Impressionists were simply ignored. Similarly, Cassatt's parents were largely ignorant of and indifferent to art in general. Mary not only created, she collected art. With earnings from exhibitions, she purchased Impressionist paintings and encouraged her brothers in America to buy from the artists or her own art dealer in Paris, the Durand-Ruel Gallery. However, they never displayed a taste for or interest in art. Her parents had little contact with French culture or French people except for Cassatt's artist and writer friends, and they had no contact with the extensive American colony in Paris. The Cassatts lived a comfortable life in France; they hired servants, kept a carriage and horses, and spent summers in the country.

Cassatt used family members as models for some of her best pictures; Lydia posed for The Garden and The Cup of Tea, and Katherine sat for Reading Le Figaro (1882), one of Mary Cassatt's finest works. Women and children were her forte. Portraits of her brother Aleck and of her father on horseback are, in contrast, stiff and prosaic. It is curious that she could never capture men on canvas since she liked men better than women; she liked horses, too, but her few paintings that include horses are not memorable. Nancy Hale attributes Cassatt's success in portraying women and children to her memory rather than personal experience which, she says, accounts for the absence of sentimentality in her portraits. The 1880s were Cassatt's most creative period, producing 12 pictures in 1889 alone, placing great emphasis on design and on delicate texture, with landscapes and still life simply serving as background to her individualized figures. In her work, as with other Impressionists, light was a major element, interior light and the light of Paris. Degas judged Cassatt to be a master draftswoman, essential to producing "good" art. Cassatt agreed, and nothing irritated her more than hearing people say "only a woman" could have painted a particular picture. If her horses and men were wooden, lifeless images, her women and children evoked positive responses from viewers. However, when she did a portrait of Mrs. Riddle, her mother's cousin, the woman's daughter rejected it because the nose was too large. Lady at the Tea Table was relegated to a closet for many years before being exhibited by Durand-Ruel in 1914, causing a great sensation; Cassatt gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1923. In 1886, Durand-Ruel organized an exhibit of Impressionist paintings in New York for the American Art Association, including two by Mary Cassatt. This was the first major showing of these artists in the United States, and, as Cassatt had predicted, Americans did not appreciate them.

Mary Cassatt's ascendancy in the French art world was the result of hard work and her strong will; "none but those who have painted a picture know what it costs in time and strength," she declared. She earned a good income and was able to contribute to family expenses. In 1887, she found a large apartment for herself and her parents (Lydia died of Bright's disease in 1882) at 10, rue de Marignan, off the Champs-Élysées, large enough to accommodate Cassatt's studio and servants' quarters. Since her family had moved to Paris a decade earlier, Cassatt had been responsible for finding their apartments in Paris and villas for their summer holidays. Cassatt's brothers, Aleck and Gardner, and their families, often visited for extended periods, her nieces and nephews serving as models for some of her best paintings. Aleck's wife, Lois Buchanan, disliked the Cassatts, especially Mary: "I cannot abide Mary and never will," she wrote to her sister. No doubt Cassatt's abrasive personality and superior attitude made her a difficult relative and friend, but the family attributed this to artistic temperament.

Close ties with the French Impressionists were abruptly severed in 1891 with the formation of a new group, the Society of French Painters-Engravers. As an American, Cassatt was excluded, as was Pissarro who was born in the West Indies. Barred from exhibiting with the Society, Cassatt arranged a one-woman show next door at Durand-Ruel's gallery. But public attention had shifted to Pointillism and neo-impressionism, and her show attracted little attention. Cassatt's work sold well in France, but in America she and the Impressionists had not yet found a market. The reaction of the untutored American public was confirmed for Cassatt when she painted a series of murals depicting The Modern Woman for the Women's Building at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Her panels were described by critics as "erratic and ridiculous," to which she reacted angrily: "After all, give me France. Women do not have to fight for recognition here if they do serious work." In contrast to the American reception of her work, the Luxemburg Palace museum in Paris purchased a set of her etchings, and the French government invited her to contribute a picture for the national collection. Curiously, Cassatt declined the government request, though it was an honor. Another one-woman show, comprising 98 items, at the Durand-Ruel gallery received great acclaim from French critics, who rated The Boating Party as one of her best paintings. In New York, two years later, the same exhibit aroused scant interest. American art critics disparaged Impressionist art in general; a review several years earlier summed up their attitude. "[Impressionism] is founded neither on the laws of Nature nor the dictates of common sense. We can see in it only the uneasy striving after notoriety of a restless vanity, that prefers celebrity for ill doing rather than [pursuing] the paths of true Art."

Cassatt produced a large number of fine works in the 1880s and 1890s; over 200 pieces of graphic art, aquatints, pastels, a few drawings, watercolors, and gouaches attest to her assertion that art entailed hard work. She continued using the mother-and-child theme, but, writes Hale, "she varied her interpretation constantly and through change of scale, mood, and tone avoided monotony." William Wiser described Mary Cassatt as an "intimist, a delineator of intimate life and a brilliant interpreter of character in portraiture." Her Young Women Picking Fruit, Woman Arranging Her Veil, and Young Girl in Large Hat illustrate her adept handling of female subjects in a natural, non-formulaic, manner.

Havemeyer, Louisine (1855–1929)

American art collector. Born Louisine Waldron Elder in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1855; died of heart disease on January 6, 1929; daughter of George W. Elder (a sugar refiner); married Henry Osborne Havemeyer (a mogul in the sugar industry), in 1883 (died 1907); children: Adaline Havemeyer Frelinghuysen (b. 1884); Horace Havemeyer (b. 1886); Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888–1960, also a collector).

The Havemeyers of Philadelphia were an extraordinary team of art collectors. "He was the plunger, she was the thrifty one," wrote Aline B. Saarinen in The Proud Possessors. "He brought to collecting the nerve…. She brought to it so eager a desire to be an 'original' that she encouraged their venturing into the vanguard." He bought by the car load; she preferred hunting down one object at a time. In the beginning, Henry Havemeyer's interests were primarily with Persian and Oriental pottery, rugs, tea jars, three-dimensional objects. It was Louisine Havemeyer and Mary Cassatt who convinced him to move into paintings.

The daughter of George Elder, a sugar refiner who had been in business with Henry Havemeyer's father, Louisine spent her girlhood wandering European galleries and museums. The Elders belonged to the same Philadelphia set as the Cassatts. When Mary Cassatt arrived in Paris, she looked up Louisine and the two joined hands for purchasing expeditions. Though Louisine had only a small allowance, she saved and spent wisely (with the help of Cassatt)—a habit held for a lifetime. (In 1913, Louisine bid $40,000 on a Daumier but took a bus to the auction.)

When the Havemeyers were married in 1883, he was 36 and she 29. He had been married earlier to her aunt. It was Louisine who tracked and stored the vast collection—which included Greco's View of Toledo, Goya's Women on a Balcony, Manet's Le Bal de l'Opéra, Daumier's Third Class Carriage, and Courbet's Landscape and Deer—in their Fifth Avenue mansion, interiors by Tiffany, at 1 East 66th Street.

Following Henry's death in 1907, Louisine continued collecting; she also carried on with her Sunday musicales and Tuesday at homes. The famous collection was viewed by many callers, including Lord Kitchener. Also a feminist, Havemeyer lectured in support of enfranchisement and better education for women ("Women were good ballast on the Mayflower, why not on the Ship of State") and once lent the collection for a suffragist benefit. To the horror of relatives, she also spent a night in the lock-up with 28 other campaigners.

On her death in 1929, Louisine Havemeyer bequeathed 142 works of art from "The H.O. Havemeyer Collection" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; by 1930, her children had increased the bequest to 1,972 items. It was "one of the most magnificent donations ever made to a museum of art," said Edward Robinson, then director of the museum.


Saarinen, Aline B. The Proud Possessors. NY: Random House, 1958.

Mary Cassatt's contribution to the world of art was not limited to her own creations. She was, Wiser stated, "the first to introduce American wealth to European art." In 1873, Cassatt had met Louisine Elder (Havemeyer) , an American in Paris, who shared Cassatt's love of art. Cassatt convinced her to purchase a Degas for $100 (sold by Havemeyer's grandson in 1965 for $410,000). After Louisine married the wealthy Henry O. Havemeyer, Cassatt acted as their guide and advisor during their numerous sojourns in Europe. An artist and connoisseur, Cassatt advised her friends wisely; in Spain, she recognized a fake Goya being offered by a Spanish noblewoman. She later found the original in France, and the Havemeyers added it to their extensive collection, which eventually became a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Cassatt's advice was also sought by her friend James Stillman, a retired American banker who lived in Paris. As with the Havemeyers, Cassatt traveled with Stillman to various museums and galleries in Europe to purchase individual pieces of art. They enjoyed a longterm friendship, but Cassatt, as usual, avoided a romantic entanglement or even the hint of impropriety in their relationship. To Cassatt's great disappointment, the few pieces of art she persuaded her brothers to purchase were later disposed of by their heirs; Lois Buchanan destroyed the portrait Cassatt had done of her years earlier.

After Cassatt's father died in 1891, she bought a 17th-century manor house, Château de Beaufresne, with 45 acres of gardens and parks near Mesnil-Théribus (Oise) with her own money. Known locally as "The Empress" for her aristocratic demeanor, Cassatt became quite active in local affairs with a special interest in politics. At Beaufresne, she "lived the life of a well-to-do, cultivated American" seven servants, including her German housekeeper Mathilde, provided her with all the comforts she demanded. Cassatt refused to hire French servants because under French law they could be dismissed only for gross misbehavior; she felt this restricted her freedom of action. Dressed by the best French dressmakers, she preferred English shoes to the "frivolous" French footwear, and had a passion for old jewelry. Elegant and distinguished, she impressed the local villagers by her charity and concern for them. A local button factory was the chief employer in the area, and Cassatt thought young women should have access to better opportunities. She trained some young women as domestics and placed them with families in Paris; one of them attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, at Cassatt's expense, and was employed by Baron Rothschild's family. Cassatt lived on at the château and in the apartment on the rue de Marignan after her mother's death in 1895. At age 50, she remained a good conversationalist and enjoyed visits from her small circle of friends, including Degas whose acrid remarks and inflexible opinions matched her own. Cassatt's interest in spiritualism was shared by Mrs. Montgomery Sears , an American living in Paris, and Cassatt often attended the Thursday evening seances at her house.

To Mary Cassatt, decorum and respectability were essential elements of social discourse; those who violated her sensibilities were quickly dismissed. On meeting Leo and Gertrude Stein , American expatriates and art collectors, she promptly dismissed them as social deviants. Sears had persuaded Cassatt to attend a Stein "evening at home," frequented by artists and writers, and to see their collection of modern art, which included Matisses, Picassos, and Cubists. Cassatt was unimpressed: "I have never seen so many dreadful paintings in one place … [and] so many dreadful people gathered together, and I want to be taken home." The "prim Philadelphia spinster" had no use for the frumpy Americans or for the avant-garde art of the early 20th century. She even dismissed Monet's famous water-lilies as nothing but "glorified wall paper." Cassatt's friendship with Degas was shaken by the nationally divisive Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was accused of selling secrets to the Germans; he was tried, found guilty, and sent to prison on Devil's Island. Cassatt and Degas embodied the prejudices of their time and class, but she slowly realized that Dreyfus might have been falsely accused, which was later proven to be the case. Degas refused to consider the possibility, and his virulent anti-Semitism led him to break with his old friend Pissarro, a Jew. To Cassatt, Pissarro was an artist and a friend, "so not a Jew at all." She attended his funeral in 1904; Degas did not.

Like many expatriates, Cassatt lived all her adult life in France while retaining her American identity. She never considered living in the United States but made two extended visits in 1898–99 and in 1908–09. She suffered from debilitating seasickness and had to be carried from the ship after her final voyage, followed by weeks of bedrest. Cassatt vowed never to return, and she didn't. Moreover, she remained critical of the inadequate attention paid to collecting major artists by American museum directors; she attributed this to lack of taste, not lack of money. Her dismissal of most modern art—all lines and squiggles—did not mean she took a narrow view of art. On a cruise up the Nile River with Gardner and his family in the fall of 1910, she was impressed with the majestic Egyptian art, "all strength, no room … for grace, for children, none. Only intellect and strength," she wrote. But exposure to this ancient art never influenced her techniques as had an earlier Japanese exposition of woodcut prints in Paris.

Mary Cassatt had definite ideas about most subjects, and she also held to a rigid set of principles from which she refused to deviate. In 1904, she finally received recognition from the American art world that she had so long coveted. The Pennsylvania Academy awarded her the Lippincott Prize of $300 for her painting Caress. She declined the offer, informing the Academy that "I must stick to my principles … no jury, no medals, no awards." She suggested the money be given instead to a young, struggling artist. Her principles were obviously not taken seriously by the Academy—they asked her to serve as a juror that same year; she, of course, refused. Ten years later, Cassatt did accept the Gold Medal of Honor from them; no money was involved and it was given for her entire production, not a specific picture. The Art Institute of Chicago also presented her with a prize, the N.W. Harris Prize of $500 for Caress. Again, she refused to accept it. The prize money was awarded to an art student, as she directed. And France honored her; Mary Cassatt was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, which she proudly accepted.

Cassatt's brother Gardner had fallen ill during their trip to Egypt and died in Paris in April 1911. Devastated by his death, she suffered what she called a "breakdown." Alone and depressed, her health deteriorated. Cataracts and diabetes, for which she was given radium treatments, restricted her ability to work. A series of operations failed to save her sight. Friends and relatives noticed a change in her personality. Short-tempered and vindictive, she lashed out at all around her. When war came in August 1914, Cassatt was at her château. She left for the south of France but returned to Beaufresne in 1915, which was at times only 50 miles from the front lines. The faithful Mathilde was interned and deported as an enemy national, leaving Cassatt more isolated than ever, but she never considered returning to the United States, a "hopeless cultural vacuum of a society dedicated primarily to material gain. Its politics were ridiculous, its ambitions shameful." Ravaged by war, France was still more congenial. Amidst the horrendous carnage, the death of Degas in 1917 was barely noticed by most of the nation. However, Cassatt was saddened by the loss of "my oldest friend here and the last great artist of the 19th century. I see no one to replace him."

Nearly blind and raging against her disabilities, Cassatt did not find the postwar years happy. Unable to paint, she systematically began to dispose of her numerous works. She wrote a friend that she realized "the absurdity of keeping a picture to leave a nephew or niece, who care nothing for art, and certainly not for my pictures." Cassatt had offered The Boating Party to her niece Ellen Mary, who never bothered to reply. Durand-Ruel sold it for 10,000 francs. Furthermore, she wrote, her family "secretly resent my reputation, for which I care little." Even Louisine Havemeyer did not escape Cassatt's vitriol. Cassatt sent two sets of dry-point plates to Louisine who was to negotiate a purchase by William Ivins, curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ivins said the plates were old and worn and that the Museum already had a set of these prints. Cassatt insisted they had never been printed and that Louisine and Ivins were conspiring to defraud her. Refusing to admit she was wrong, Cassatt ended her 50-year friendship with Havemeyer.

Mary Cassatt died at Beaufresne and was buried there alongside her parents, her sister Lydia, and brother Robbie. Her longtime art dealer, Durand-Ruel said of her, "In Paris, she has always been appreciated as a great painter…. It was her own country that failed to value her." Fortunately, this is no longer true.


Hale, Nancy. Mary Cassatt. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

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

Wiser, William. The Great Good Place: American Expatriate Women in Paris. NY: W.W. Norton, 1991.

suggested reading:

Dillon, Millicent. After Egypt: Isadora Duncan and Mary Cassatt. NY: Dutton, 1990.

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

Pollack, Griselda. Mary Cassatt. NY: Harper and Row, 1980.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

Cassatt, Mary (1844-1926)

views updated May 11 2018

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)



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.


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).

Cassatt, Mary (1844–1926)

views updated May 08 2018

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 .


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

Cassatt, Mary

views updated Jun 27 2018

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.

Mary Cassatt

views updated May 29 2018

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). □

Cassatt, Mary (1844–1926)

views updated May 18 2018

Cassatt, Mary (1844–1926)

American artist. Born Mary Stevenson Cassatt in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, May 22, 1844; died at Chàteau de Beaufresne (Oise), France, June 14, 1926; dau. of Robert Simpson Cassatt (stockbroker and mayor of Allegheny City, PA, died 1891) and Katherine Kelso Johnston Cassatt (died 1895); graduate of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1865; never married; no children.

Grande dame of the Impressionists, moved to Paris (1866); as Mary Stevenson, had 1st painting exhibited in the Salon (1868); spent 2 years in Italy and Spain (1872–74); as Mary Cassatt, exhibited in Salon (1872–76); met Edgar Degas, who asked her to join the Impressionist group (1877); rebelled against the officially sanctioned "true" art accorded the blessing of the French Academy of Fine Arts and exhibited with Impressionists (1879–86); used family members as models for some of her best pictures: women and children were her forte; produced 12 pictures in 1889 alone, placing great emphasis on design and on delicate texture, with landscapes and still life simply serving as background to her individualized figures; painted a series of murals depicting The Modern Woman for the Women's Building at Chicago World's Fair (1893); held 1st one-woman show, Paris (1893), which received great acclaim from French critics, who rated The Boating Party as one of her best paintings; bought Château de Beaufresne near Mesnil-Théribus (Oise, 1892); named honorary president of Paris Art League (1904); toured Egypt (1910); caused a sensation when Lady at the Tea Table was exhibited by Durand-Ruel (1914); lived her adult years in France, receiving little attention in US during lifetime; other paintings include The Blue Room (1878), The Loge (1879), Young Women Picking Fruit, Woman Arranging Her Veil and Young Girl in Large Hat.

See also Nancy Hale, Mary Cassatt (Addison-Wesley, 1987); Frederick A. Sweet, Mary Cassatt: Impressionist from Pennsylvania (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1966); Nancy Mowll Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life (Villard, 1994); Griselda Pollack, Mary Cassatt (Harper & Row, 1980); and Women in World History.

Cassatt, Mary

views updated May 23 2018

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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