Mary Cassatt: A Woman of Independent Mind

Biography | The Artist | Mother and Child | Print-Making and Japan | Featured Lessons | Featured Websites | About the Image

I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.

—Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926). The Boating Party.In an age when women were expected to tend to marriage, motherhood, and domestic matters, few Americans—especially those who occupied the upper-middle class—could have imagined that a young woman of respectable social stature would insist on setting out to study art professionally in Europe, let alone achieve fame and the respect of some of the most progressive artists of the late nineteenth century. Yet, throughout her life as well as in her art, Mary Cassatt, the daughter of a Pennsylvania banker, showed tenacity and a strong will in place of the so-called "retiring, feminine" virtues extolled in the Victorian era.

1. Biography

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, whose Boating Party (1893–1894) is a featured work in the Picturing America portfolio, was born on May 22, 1844, in a section of what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The family later moved to Philadelphia, and over her father’s objection, she began her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1861 at the age of sixteen. (When told by his daughter that she wanted become a professional artist, Mr. Cassatt is reputed to have replied, “I’d rather see you dead first.”).

gathering fruit, CassattMary was soon disillusioned by the slow pace of study and the restrictions of women art students in the Academy, however: particularly as they pertained to the all-important life-studies classes, which required drawing nude models. She persuaded her parents to let her study abroad, instead. Linguistically and culturally, Mary was well-equipped to travel in Europe. Between 1851 and 1855, she had resided there with her family and was fluent in both French and German. When she arrived on the Continent for a four-year stay at age twenty-two, she was barred from attending the all-male École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but was accepted as a private pupil by some of the leading academic painters of the day, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), who also taught at the École and who tutored fellow-American painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).

Eakins, unlike Cassatt, developed an objective and probing realistic style, never journeyed abroad again, and devoted himself exclusively to recording American subjects. (See Eakins’s John Biglin in a Single Skull, c. 1873, in the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book). She, on the other hand, was destined to actively participate in a seismic shift in the French art world that challenged the government-sponsored salon: the Impressionist movement. Accompanied by her sister Lydia, she moved her residence to Paris in 1874, and her parents joined her three years later. She eventually acquired a property northwest of Paris, the Château de Beaufresne, purchased with money she had earned as a successful artist. Mary recognized that she had found a more accepting work environment abroad. As she later commented to Chicago patron Bertha Palmer in response to the latter’s offer of a commission for the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair, “Speak to me of France. Women do not have to fight for recognition here if they do serious work.” That perception may have had a great deal to do with her class as well her close family connections and her association with Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Nonetheless, she became active in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. In 1915, she helped to organize a New York exhibition consisting of works by old masters, her friend Degas, and herself in order to raise funds to support the cause. Five years later, she witnessed the passage of the nineteenth amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. Mary Cassatt died at her home in France in 1926.

2. The Artist

Edgar degas, Au Louvre -- showing Mary Cassat at the LouvreLike John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), another extremely gifted expatriate American artist who found his subject matter on both sides of the Atlantic (see his work in the Picturing America Resource Book), Mary Cassatt preferred to apply a loose brushstroke, which resulted in style more painterly than Eakins's descriptive manner or Gérôme’s attenuated, realistic style. Her early work comprises genre scenes, and these subjects, such as the Mandolin Player of 1872 (Private Collection), had success at the Paris Salon—considered at the time the most important venue for artists. However, Cassatt's artistic ambitions, seasoned by the more experimental masters of nineteenth-century Realism such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), carried her, unlike Sargent, into the circle of French avant-garde artists of the late sixties, seventies and eighties. She was becoming dissatisfied with the conventional French painting of the salon and with the treatment of women artists in the contemporary art world. In 1875 Mary saw pastels (pictures created with sticks of color composed from pure pigment and a binding medium) by Edgar Degas, who worked with the Impressionists, in an art dealer's window and became fascinated by what she saw. "I saw art then as I wanted to see it," she said. In 1879 she was asked by him to join the Impressionist group in their fourth annual exhibition. By that time Mary and Degas had become friends and colleagues. "No woman has a right to draw like that," Cassatt recalled him as once saying. One of Degas' representations of her, an etching, shows Mary as a trim, sternly attired figure seen from the back and resting on a man's umbrella as she engages in studying an Etruscan sarcophagus in the Louvre. Degas has shown her as a commanding woman with a stance that reveals a not-so-hidden desire to push the boundaries of her art.

Mary Cassat, Mother's KissIn spite of the greater sense of professional respect accorded women artists abroad, their professional opportunities were quite restricted in comparison to those of their male counterparts—even for women who occupied Cassatt's social level. Although Impressionism stressed the observation and capture of contemporary life, women of Mary's class did not appear at the cafés and outdoor venues where male Impressionist artists found many of their subjects, nor would it have been proper for her to paint a portrait of any man outside of her immediate family circle. Her world was dominated by the feminine—the domestic sphere or anywhere woman played a major role beyond the unwelcome gaze of strangers. In this context, Mary's treatment of her subjects becomes very significant, particularly the one that occupied her interest from the 1880s onward: mothers and their children.


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3. Mother and Child

The Boating Party (see the image, above), in the Picturing America portfolio, was painted when Cassatt was already well known for variations on the theme of mother and child. No particular religious content—such as the Madonna and Child—should be attributed to Mary's depictions of this theme, even though Renaissance paintings with this subject were sometimes on the artists' mind. The emphasis for Mary is rather on an important role women fulfilled in contemporary society. The woman represented in The Boating Party is of indeterminate social status. (Mary often used local women of modest means and their children and dressed them in appropriate costume.) The young woman holds a toddler somewhat awkwardly on her lap, while both look at the boatman who seems immersed in his rowing (although, because he is seen from the back, we cannot be sure that he is oblivious to their gaze). The colors are cheerful, suggesting, perhaps, the bright midday sun of the south of France, where this image was created. The psychological atmosphere, on the other hand, is one of silent intensity. We find ourselves asking: What is the relationship among these people? Where are they going? What (if anything) has just occurred?

One way the artist has obtained such a powerful, questioning response in the viewer is by the use of space and pattern. The broad, almost unmodeled expanses of blues, whites, and yellows flatten the space of the painting and visually draw the people together into a tight unit. The woman's and child's gazes are directed at the boatman's face—we can even connect the three pairs of eyes by drawing a "V", the two-thirds of one of the most stable geometric units in art, the triangle. The boatman, dressed in deep blue, and the sail on the left, cut-off, as in a snapshot, are also flattened in space. We understand them as pattern with strong contours (outlines), and therefore as having a one-dimensional quality.

4. Print-Making and Japan

Japanese print. Woman and 2 childrenThe love of flat pattern, which upsets our Western assumption of three-dimensional space, and the interest in contour link Mary Cassatt not only to Degas but to the arts of Asia—specifically the Japanese print, which had been intriguing Western artists since the opening of trade with Japan in 1854. After the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Mary began to turn more of her effort in the direction of printmaking. Her first solo print exhibition occurred in 1891, the year in which Mother's Kiss was created. The influence of Japanese prints is evident here in the deftly drawn contours and flattening effect of pattern; but just as noteworth is the emotional affinity Mary Cassatt had with one of the most famous of Japanese printmakers, Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806). His print of a woman and two children, for example, shows the delight in artistic devices of pattern and contour as well as an affectionate, mundane manner of interaction that artists like Mary, who had worked with the Impressionists, would have understood and favored. The Boating Party a few years away echoes these ideas in paint and connects Mary to the Post-Impressionist movement and artists like Gauguin, whose planes of color took on symbolic meanings of their own.

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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). The Boating Party. 1893/1894. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 46 1/8 in. (90 x 117.3 cm.). Chester Dale Collection. Image copyright 2006 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.