|Portrait of Mary Cassatt Holding Cards|
Edgar Degas c. 1876–1878 oil on canvas
It was during my research for this post that the current round of attacks on women came to the forefront, reminding me that the struggle is an old one. The Women's Rights Movement in the United States began at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men adopted resolutions calling for equal treatment under the law and voting rights for women. Mary Cassatt was four, but in a short time, her rebellion against societal and artistic convention would help redefine the role of women. What an immense loss to the art world had she not been 'allowed' to paint.
Born on May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Mary's well-to-do family believed travel was an important part of a child's education. Perhaps it was this early exposure to Europe's abundant art resources that prompted her to become an artist. Or perhaps the limited options available to wealthy young women of her time compelled her to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The choice to have a career rather than a family was her first challenge. The decision to participate in a male dominated field, the second.
|Spanish Dancer Lace Mantilla |
1873 Mary Cassatt oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum
|Two Women Throwing Flowers|
Mary Cassatt oil on canvas 1872
|A Corner of the Loge (In the Box)|
Mary Cassatt 1879 Oil on canvas
In 1874 she saw her first impressionist pieces at a show by Edgar Degas. Years later she wrote to her friend and patron, Louisine Havemeyer, “How well I remember, nearly forty years ago, seeing for the first time Degas’ pastels in the window of a picture dealer on the Boulevard Haussmann. 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.” That same year, Degas saw her work Ida, at the Salon and invited her to the Société Anonyme des Artistes, often called the Independents. The rest of the art world called them the Impressionists. The Salon jurists, often criticized for their conventional tastes and constraints on artists, made her decision easy. Only three women were invited to join the Independents, and only one American, Mary Cassatt. She showed in 1879, 1880, 1881, and in the group's final show in 1886.
|Woman Bathing (La Toilette)|
Mary Cassatt 1890-1891
Drypoint and aquatint from three plates
|The Boating Party, |
Mary Cassatt 1893/1894 oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art
|The Child's Bath|
Mary Cassatt 1893 oil on canvas
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
It was also around this time that she began working with pastels. Of all her work, the pastel drawings are my favorite. Using an unhesitating flow of color to capture the essence of her models, they are as alive today as they were over 100 years ago. But it was The Child's Bath, an oil painting produced in 1893 and part of the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I first encountered and fell in love with the work of Mary Cassatt. In her later paintings and drawings, the children are the main attraction. They are bored, distracted, and often limp from the weight of being a child. This at a time when children were represented and glorified as little grownups. Cassatt saw and painted them as kids.
By 1912 Mary had been diagnosed with diabetes and cataracts. In 1914, after several unsuccessful eye operations, she stopped painting. She died in 1926 and is buried in the family vault in France. If you would like to see more, (and I recommend you do), check out the collection at Wikipaintings.org
|The Banjo Lesson|
Mary Cassatt 1894 Pastel on Paper
Mary Cassatt was accused of being outspoken and self-centered. Degas, Monet, and other artists of the time who displayed those traits were considered eccentric. Critics even suggested that her detached and unsentimental renderings were not natural in a woman. Sometimes, you just can't win.