Mary Stevenson Cassatt is one of America’s most well known artists. She was born in Alleghany City near Pittsburgh. Her father was a banker and stockbroker. The family traveled frequently to Europe, where he took her first art classes and also learned to speak French and German. After seeing the great art of Europe, she decided she wanted to be an artist. When the family settled in Philadelphia in 1859, she began classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Discouraged with the patronizing teachers and male students, she left the Academy in 1865 saying, “There is no teaching at the Academy.” She was referring to the fact that female students were allowed to learn anatomy from plaster casts only, not from life. Famously opposed to Mary’s choice to pursue an artistic career her father said, “I would rather see her dead.” He finally relented in 1866, and Mary was allowed to go to Paris to study art, but with her mother and other family friends as chaperones. In Paris she had to take private lessons from Academy artists, because females were not allowed to be students in classes.
Cassatt’s first ten years in Paris were generally unsuccessful. She was juried into the 1868 Paris Salon exhibition, but her work was rejected for the next ten years. In 1871, she returned to America because of the Franco-Prussian War. A letter of July 1871 states: “I have given up my studio and torn up my father’s portrait and have not touched a brush for six weeks nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe.” The Archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned Cassatt in 1871 to make copies of two Correggio paintings in Parma, Italy. The money and commission allowed her return to Italy and to travel to Spain. She returned to Paris in 1874, and found an apartment with her sister Lydia. ”No amount of bodily suffering would seem for me too great a price for the pleasure of being in a country where one could have some art advantages. I recognize who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live.”
Cassatt’s father, mother, brother and his wife and children moved to Paris in 1877, and she lived with them and enjoyed the closeness of her family until 1888. She remained unmarried; having decided marriage would not be good for her career. This trip to Paris was a success; her paintings were accepted into five Salon exhibitions. But she changed her style and decided not to submit again. She met the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas in 1878. “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” Degas invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists: “I accepted with joy. I hated conventional art. I began to live. At last I could work in complete independence, without bothering about the eventual judgment of a jury.”
Woman with a Pearl Necklace depicts Cassatt’s sister Lydia in the newly opened Paris Opera. Cassatt is fully engaged in Impressionist style in this work. The crystals in the chandeliers provide the shimmering rainbow light source of Impressionism. Science had recently revealed that all sources of light were made up of the colors purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red as seen through a prism, and in the rainbow. There color spectrum contains no black or white. Cassatt paints colors of the lights and shadows creating the three-dimensional effect of Lydia’s skin, white gloves, and light pink dress with the six colors of the light spectrum. Note specifically the greens, blues and purples used to paint the shadows. To depict the slight shifting of movements of the sitter, Cassatt has employed the Impressionist‘s swift and light brush stokes.
In addition to the use of color and brush work, Cassatt also reflects the Impressionist interest in representing modern life. The Impressionist were a group of about ten artists, while their contemporaries, the thousands of Academy painter, still cling to the stilted subject matter of Greek goddesses and historical themes. The bourgeoisie of Paris were enjoying the new entertainments available to everyone: circuses, nightclubs on Montmartre, opera, and ballet. Cassatt’s compositions also were very well thought out. The viewer can follow the numerous small and large semi-circles from the small curves of dress and pillow in the foreground, through the sweeping curve of Lydia’s dress bodice, answering curves of her shoulders, small pearl necklace and larger swell of the red velvet of the chair in the center. The swinging curves of the boxes and the distant glass beads of the chandelier complete the scene. With all these compositional elements, Cassatt also adds the diagonal of Lydia’s fan, echoed by her arms and shoulders, to bring Lydia’s head to the center of the composition. Note also the placement of the red cushions and red flower in her corsage and in her hair. The most distinctly colored item is the fan. This color palette is used through out the painting, as the larger patches of blues, greens and purples depict the crowd of onlookers in the boxes. Mary Cassatt is a master of composition.
Cassatt exhibited with the Impressionist’s from 1879 to 1886. The 1879 exhibition was one of the Impressionist’s most successful. Another of Cassatt’s paintings in the 1879 exhibition was “Little Girl in the Blue Arm Chair” (1878) (35.2’’ x 5l.1’’) (NGA). Cassatt loved to paint her family, and she showed a particular skill for catching the unique and engaging moments of children in unposed situations. The little girl has casually plopped down in the chair. Tired and bored, she takes no notice that her skirt has ruched up around her waist revealing her lace petticoat. Her little brown dog, painted in blue, green and purple, sleeps in the opposite chair and mirrors the shape of her plaid skirt. Her arms are all akimbo, the left filling in the back of the chair, while the curve of the right arm is repeated by the curve of the distant sofa.
The composition is cleverly made up of repeated curves and angles. The plaid skirt determines the specific colors repeated throughout. Cassatt chooses to create an unusual overall composition that cuts the furniture off at the top, sides and bottom, evidencing the Impressionist’s recognition of the new art of photography. Snapshots inevitably centered the photo on the selected image and cut off any surrounding objects at the edges.
Degas suggested in 1880 that Cassatt should continue to develop the mother and child theme that was bringing her success and where she excelled. Cassatt also expanded her media to include pastels and prints. The popularity of Japanese woodcut prints (Ukiyo-e), introduced into Paris in 1867, were another major influence on the Impressionist’s and Cassatt. She began to make a series of prints in 1890, employing the techniques of aquatint, dry point, and soft ground etching. “Maternal Caress” is one of ten prints her one-woman exhibition in 1891 at Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris. Prints use a limited palette that relies on the color of the paper and simple patterns in a single color of ink to depict figures and background. The color areas are accomplished with aquatint, and soft ground etching. Dry point employs a sharp needle that must draw lines into a hard metal plate. Mistakes are not correctable. Cassatt’s lines, drawn precisely to render the affection between mother and child, are perfection. She was able to make the process look easy, when in reality it is very difficult.
“Boating Party” (1893-1894) (3’ x 3.10’’) (NGA), is another example of Cassatt’s great skill with oil paint, composition, and mother and child images. Her later paintings no longer were made with quick brushstrokes except in the movement of water. Nevertheless, the six sunlight colors still create all the forms. Beyond the fun of the interaction between mother and child, the composition is created with numerous curved forms, the most obvious being the shape of the boat and sail. With the exception of the strong horizontals of the boat seats and the distant horizon, and the diagonal oars, the composition is composed of semi-circles. From the rower’s circular bottom and blue sash, to the circular bottoms of the skirts, to the curved poses of hands, arms, and hats, there is clever play of echoing curves. In addition, the bold yellow parts of the boat in the foreground are subtly played out in the sail, the mother’s hat, and buildings along the horizon. Mary Cassatt knows how to make a very satisfying painting.
A business woman, philanthropist, and women’s rights advocate, Berthe Honore Palmer invited Cassatt to the paint a mural on the north tympanum of the Gallery of Honor in the Woman’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The theme, “Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science” (1893) (58’ x 12’) was Cassatt’s response to women’s rights. To her good friend Louisine Havemeyer, Cassatt wrote: “I am going to do a decoration for the Chicago Exhibition. When the committee offered it to me to do, at first I was horrified, but gradually I began to think it would be great fun to do something I had never done before and as the bare idea of such a thing put Degas into a rage and he did not spare every criticism he could think of, I got my spirit up and said I would not give up the idea for anything.” Suffragettes would have approved of the theme, but the general public heavily criticized Cassatt. The panel disappeared after the end of the Exposition.
Before meeting Degas in 1878, Cassatt admired Degas’s pastels. In 1875 she said, “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” “Nurse Reading to a Little Girl” (1895) (pastel) (26.6’’x28.7’’) is but one more example of Cassatt’s artistic expertise.
Cassatt and Degas disagreed over the Dreyfus affair in 1894 to 1906; she was pro-Dreyfus, and their friendship ended. On her first trip home in 1898, a Philadelphia newspaper noted only that she was home, had studied painting, and had a small Pekingese dog. She was made a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor in 1904, and also was made Honorary President of the Paris Art League, a school for American women students in Paris. Never a person to hold back her opinions, which were often quite sharp, when visiting the 1908 Paris Salon she saw: “Dreadful paintings and people gathered together in one Place. I wanted to be taken home at once.” She made a trip to Egypt with her brother Gardner in 1910, and on her return stated she was “crushed by the strength of this Art. I fought against it, but it conquered, it is surely the greatest art the past has left us…how are my feeble hands to ever paint the effect on me.”
In 1911 she was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism and cataracts and by 1914 she stopped making art. She showed eighteen works in a 1915 exhibition supporting the women’s suffrage movement. George Biddle, painter and fellow Philadelphian, described Cassatt: “She drew the almost impossible line between her social life and her art, and never sacrificed an iota to either. Socially and emotionally she remained the prim Philadelphia spinster of her generation.” Cassatt’s work today sells for prices from two to five million dollars. Although she spent most of her life in Paris, she asserted, “I am American, definitely and frankly American.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.