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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, foreshadowed the tenacity and strong will of the "New Woman" who would usher in the 20th century.

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 enrolled 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 placed on women art students at the Academy and abandoned her studies there. By 1865 she had persuaded her reluctant father to let her study in Paris. Linguistically and culturally, Mary was well prepared. Like other American families of a certain class, the Cassatts had toured Europe for a lengthy period (between 1850 and 1855), and Mary was fluent in both French and German. When she arrived on the continent for a four-year stay at age twenty-two, she was accepted as a private pupil by a leading academic painter of the day, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), who also tutored fellow-American artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916).

The two Americans would have very different futures. 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). Mary, on the other hand, was destined to actively participate in the Impressionist movement, which would challenge the art world and its premier proving venue, the government-sponsored Salon. Mary eventually moved her residence to Paris in 1874 and acquired property, the Château de Beaufresne, located northwest of the city, which was purchased with money she had earned as a successful artist. Mary clearly 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 and her association with aristocratic French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Nonetheless, she did not abandon her concern for the status of American women. She became active in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, in 1915, helping to organize a New York exhibition consisting of works by old masters, her friend Degas, as well as 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 a loose brushstroke, which resulted in a painterly style. (Compare  Eakins's descriptive manner or Gérôme’s attenuated, realistic style.) Her early work is comprised of genre scenes and these subjects, such as the Mandolin Player of 1872 (private collection), proved successful at the Paris Salon, the most important venue for artists at the time. However, Cassatt's artistic ambitions, seasoned by the more experimental masters of nineteenth-century Realism such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), carried her 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 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 saying. One of Degas' representations of her, an etching, shows Mary as a trim, sternly attired figure seen from the back and leaning on a man's umbrella: 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, opportunities for women were quite restricted in comparison to those available to men—even for women who shared 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. Even though Renaissance paintings of the Madonna were sometimes on the artists' mind, Mary's emphasis is on the important role women fulfilled in contemporary society. She often used local women of modest means, dressing them in appropriate costumes; and in The Boating Party the woman, holding a toddler awkwardly in her lap, is of indeterminate social status. Both woman and child look at the boatman, but because he is seen from the back, his facial expression is unknown. We cannot be sure whether or not he even meets their gazes. Although the colors are cheerful, suggesting the bright midday sun of the south of France (where this image was painted), the psychological atmosphere created by an overt lack of connecton among the figures is 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 glances are directed at the boatman's face—we can even reconstruct the connection between the three pairs of eyes, which results in a "V" shape, two-thirds of the most stable geometric unit in art, the triangle. The boatman, dressed in deep blue, and the sail to 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, as well as the related interest in contour, link Mary Cassatt 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 efforts 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. Mary Cassatt had a noteworthy emotional affinity 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.