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date: 04 October 2023

Cassatt, Mary (Stevenson)free

(b Allegheny City [now in Pittsburgh], May 22, 1844; d Le Mesnil-Théribus, France, Jun 14, 1926).

Cassatt, Mary (Stevenson)free

(b Allegheny City [now in Pittsburgh], May 22, 1844; d Le Mesnil-Théribus, France, Jun 14, 1926).
  • Nancy Mowll Mathews

Updated in this version

updated and revised

American painter and printmaker, active in France. One of the great American expatriates of the later 19th century (along with Sargent and Whistler), Cassatt was an active member of the Impressionist group in Paris and carved out a lasting international reputation for her famous “modern” representations of the mother and child (see fig.). Because of her success, her life and art have been closely examined to gain a better understanding of how gender affects artists during their lifetimes and afterwards in historical perspective.

1. Life and work.

Daughter of a Pittsburgh broker, Mary Stevenson Cassatt received a cultured upbringing and spent five years abroad as a child (1851–1855). In 1860, at the age of 16, she began classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and in 1865 sailed again for Europe. During the next four years she studied in and around Paris with such notables as Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin, and Thomas Couture. When she returned to Europe after sixteen months in the USA (1870–1871), she painted and copied in the museums of Parma, Madrid, Seville, Antwerp, and Rome, finally settling in Paris in 1874. Until 1878 she worked mainly as a portrait and genre painter, exhibiting regularly in the USA, particularly in Philadelphia, and had paintings accepted in the Paris Salons of 1868, 1870, and 1872–1876.

Cassatt’s study of Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens, coupled with her interest in the modern masters Couture, Gustave Courbet, and Edgar Degas, caused her to question the popular Salon masters of the 1870s and to develop her own increasingly innovative style. This led to rejection of some of her Salon entries in 1875 and 1877 but also prompted Degas to invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists. She made her debut with them at their fourth annual exhibition (1879), by which time she had mastered the Impressionist style and was accepted as a full-fledged member by artists and critics alike. She went on to participate in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1880, 1881, and 1886.

Cassatt was clear-sighted, confident, and sociable, traits that served her well in modernist art circles. Much of this confidence came from her upbringing in one of the most successful post–Civil War American families—her brothers Alexander and Gardner rose to prominence in railroads and investment banking in Philadelphia. Like Degas’s family in New Orleans, their industries had benefited from a slave-labor economy before abolition and then the postwar industrialization boom. Family members traveled easily between Paris and Philadelphia and often figure in Cassatt’s Impressionist portraits and scenes of daily life during this period (e.g. Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, 1880; New York, Met.).

Cassatt began to revise her Impressionist style in the 1880s, and after the last Impressionist exhibition (1886) she developed a refined draftsmanship in her pastels, prints, and oil paintings. After exhibiting with the new Société des Peintres-Graveurs in 1889 and 1890, she had her first individual exhibition of color prints and paintings in 1891 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris. In 1892 she was invited to paint a large tympanum mural, Modern Woman, for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893). Although the mural itself is now lost, many paintings (e.g. Nude Baby Reaching for an Apple, 1893; Richmond, VA, Mus. F.A.), prints (e.g. Gathering Fruit, drypoint with aquatint, c. 1895), and pastels (e.g. Banjo Lesson, 1894; Richmond, VA Mus. F.A.) based on Cassatt’s mural designs reflect her concept of modern woman “plucking the fruits of knowledge or science.” She exhibited these in her first major retrospective exhibition in 1893 at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris and again in 1895 at his gallery in New York.

Cassatt’s success in Europe and the USA was such that in 1894 she was able to purchase the Château de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Théribus (c. 90 km northwest of Paris) from the sale of her work. Thereafter she alternated between Paris and the country, with a few months every winter in the south of France. She increasingly concentrated on the mother-and-child theme and on studies of women and young girls, often turning to the Old Masters for inspiration (see fig.). For this work she was recognized on both continents, and, in addition to receiving a number of awards, including the Légion d’honneur in 1904, she was called “the most eminent of all living American women painters” (Current Lit., 1909, 167). She spent much of her time during these years helping her American friends build collections of avant-garde French art and works by Old Masters. Those she advised included Henry and Louisine Havemeyer, Sarah Choate Sears, Bertha Honoré Palmer, and James Stillman. By the 1910s she was gratified to see her own work acquired by major collectors on both sides of the Atlantic as well as museums such as the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She appeared in American fiction from Louisa May Alcott to Sinclair Lewis and in 1913 she was named as one of the five most important American women along with such notables as Edith Wharton and Ida Tarbell.

Mary Cassatt: The Caress, oil on canvas, 834×694 mm, 1902 (Washington, DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum); photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

Cassatt painted until 1915 and exhibited her latest work that year in the Suffrage Loan Exhibition of Old Masters and Works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt at the Knoedler Gallery, New York; but soon afterwards cataracts in both eyes forced her into retirement. She continued to be actively interested in art, however, and until her death she vigorously expressed her own views and opinions to the many young artists who visited her seeking advice.

2. Working methods, technique, and subject matter.

Cassatt’s own experimentation and her openness to new ideas caused her style to change many times during her long career. In her early years (1860–1878) she practiced a painterly genre style in dark, rich colors as in A Musical Party (1874; Paris, Mus. Carnavalet); during her Impressionist period (1879–1886) she used a pastel palette and quick brushstrokes in such works as Cup of Tea (c. 1880; New York, Met.); in her mature period (1887–1900) she developed a style that was more finished and dependent on abstract linear design, for instance in The Bath (1893; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.) and Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) (c. 1899; New York, Met.); and in her late period (1900–1926) she often used color combinations with a somber cast, as in The Caress (1903; Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus.).

Mary Cassatt: A Musical Party, oil on canvas, 1874 (Paris, Musée Carnavalet); Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

As a student and young artist, Cassatt avoided the academic emphasis on drawing and concentrated instead on painting techniques. But as her career progressed, particularly after 1879 when she took up pastels and printmaking, she developed a refined and original drawing style that blended European and oriental effects (see fig.). Her first efforts in printmaking were in a collaboration with Degas, Camille Pissarro, and others to produce a journal combining art criticism and original prints. Although the journal, Le Jour et la nuit, never appeared, Cassatt went on to finish several complex prints in etching, aquatint, and drypoint, such as The Visitor (softground, aquatint, and drypoint, c. 1880; Breeskin, 1948, no. 34). In the late 1880s she turned to drypoint for a spare and elegant effect, as in Baby’s Back (c. 1889; b. 128). Her greatest achievement in printmaking, however, was the group of eighteen color prints she produced during the 1890s. The first ten were completed and exhibited as a set in 1891 and are highly prized for their skillful use of aquatint, etching, and drypoint and for Cassatt’s hand-inking and wiping of the plates for each print. Prints from this set, such as The Letter (drypoint and aquatint, 1890–1891; b. 146), show her successful synthesis of the abstract design of Japanese color prints and the atmospheric qualities of Western art.

Mary Cassatt: Margot Lux with a Large Hat, pastel on paper, 640×484 mm, (Paris, Musée du Petit Palais); photo credit: Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

Cassatt’s pastels are equally important to her development as an artist (see fig.). Although she used pastel as a sketching tool from the first, it was not until she joined the Impressionist circle that she began to produce major finished works in this medium. Pastel became increasingly popular in both Europe and the USA in the 1870s and 1880s, and Cassatt was one of the first to exploit the properties of pastel in conveying the vibrancy of “modern” life. As in oil, she tailored her application of the pastel pigment to fit her changing style: exuberant strokes and rich colors during her Impressionist phase gave way to a calmer, more monumental style (exemplified by Banjo Lesson) as she matured. In the 1890s she returned often to the study of pastel techniques of 18th-century masters, particularly Maurice-Quentin de La Tour.

Mary Cassatt: La tasse de thé, pastel on tan wove paper mounted on canvas and stretched on a strainer, 540×730 mm, 1897 (Chicago, IL, Terra Museum of American Art); photo credit: Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago/Art Resource, NY

In the late 1880s Cassatt began to specialize in the mother-and-child theme (e.g. Mother and Child, 1897; Paris, Mus. Orsay). This developed from her interest in the monumental figure and the depiction of modern life and was also in tune with late 19th-century Symbolism. She soon became identified with the theme and continues to be considered one of its greatest interpreters. The provocative contrast between Cassatt’s own life as an ambitious professional artist and her sympathetic portrayal of the most traditional of female roles has led to much debate about gender restrictions and/or opportunities in her day. But the fact that both her life and her art resist simplistic interpretation may explain why she continues to intrigue audiences and hold such an important place in the history of American art.

Mary Cassatt: Mother and Child, pastel on paper, 550×460 mm, 1897 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay); photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

Mary Cassatt: The Cup of Tea, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 x 25 3/4 in. (92.4 x 65.4 cm), ca. 1880–81 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, From the Collection of James Stillman, Gift of Dr. Ernest G. Stillman, 1922, Accession ID:22.16.17); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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