Summary of Mary Cassatt
American-born Mary Cassatt traveled to France for her artistic training and remained there for most of her life and career. There she was recognized by contemporaries like Edgar Degas for her talent, and she became the only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris. Her signature subjects were portraits of women and portrayals of mothers and children caught in everyday moments. In both her style and her insightful evocations of women's inner lives, she was a distinctly modern artist of the late-19th century.
- Cassatt's work combined the light color palette and loose brushwork of Impressionism with compositions influenced by Japanese art as well as by European Old Masters, and she worked in a variety of media throughout her career. This versatility helped to establish her professional success at a time when very few women were regarded as serious artists.
- Cassatt's art typically depicted domestic settings, the world to which she herself (as a respectable woman) was restricted, rather than the more public spaces that her male contemporaries were free to inhabit. Her material was occasionally dismissed as quintessentially "feminine," yet most critics realized that she brought considerable technical skill and psychological insight to her subject matter.
- Through her business acumen and her friendships and professional relationships with artists, dealers, and collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, Cassatt became a key figure in the turn-of-the-century art world and helped to establish the taste for Impressionist art in her native United States.
Important Art by Mary Cassatt
Little Girl in Blue Armchair
In this important work of her mature career, Cassatt chose to portray a young girl alone in a domestic interior. The visible brushwork and the figure's informal pose are hallmarks of Impressionism; the asymmetrical composition, raised viewpoint, shallow space, and abrupt cropping of the scene all indicate the influence of Japanese art. Cassatt also brings her own astute observations to the construction of this image. The girl, who was a child of a friend of Degas, is seated in a sprawling, unselfconscious manner that reminds the viewer of her young age, and the way that she is dwarfed by the adult furniture around her evokes the awkwardness and isolation of certain stages of childhood.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
In the Loge
This canvas shows a stylish woman attending a daytime performance at the Comedie-Francaise, a famous theater in Paris. The woman's profile is set off against the red velvet and gilt decoration of the box seats behind her as she raises a pair of opera glasses to her eyes. The black of her dress is echoed in the clothing of other figures in the background, including a man several boxes down who regards her through his own glasses. Cassatt has perceptively grasped the fact that the members of the well-dressed audience are putting on their own performances for one another. The main figure may be watching the stage or observing her fellow theatergoers while she herself becomes the subject of the man's gaze; meanwhile, the viewer, who is placed just beside the woman, takes in the entire scene. When Cassatt exhibited In the Loge in Boston in 1878, one critic praised it by writing that Cassatt's work "surpassed the strength of most men."
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lydia Reading the Morning Paper (No. 1)
Cassatt's older sister, Lydia, was one of the artist's favorite models. In this painting, Lydia is seated in profile, with her gown and her face painted in the same loose, feathery brushstrokes as the background and the armchair that locks her diagonally posed figure into the asymmetrical composition. The typically Impressionist palette of white, rose, light blues, and fresh green evokes a light-hearted mood, yet this is also a serious moment: in showing her subject reading a newspaper, Cassatt alludes to the importance of women's growing literacy in the 19th century, to their increasing involvement in society beyond the home, and to their awareness of current events as they began to fight for voting rights.
Oil on canvas - Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
A Woman and a Girl Driving
In addition to capturing the life of domestic interiors, theaters, and opera houses, Cassatt also trained her gaze on figures in Paris's parks and gardens, some of the few public spaces where respectable women could move freely in society. The models for this painting were Cassatt's sister, Lydia, and Degas's young niece. The setting is the Bois de Boulogne, a large, verdant park that was a popular meeting place and a scenic destination for pleasure rides. Cassatt honed in tightly on her subject, cropping the horse at the left side of the composition and the carriage at the right side and bottom. The small girl, dressed in pale pink, sits quietly beside the woman who holds the reins; this contrast between youth and adulthood, experience and learning, is one of Cassatt's many moments of psychological observation. This work was also unusual for its time in its depiction of a well-bred woman performing a physically active (if still genteel) task.
Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art
In April 1890, Cassatt attended an exhibition of Japanese colored woodcuts at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Following this event, she decided to create a series of ten prints showing the life of a modern-day woman. The completed series included scenes of women performing their toilettes, washing their children, having tea, and so on; this example shows a woman sealing a letter she has just written at her desk. The composition balances patterns (the wallpaper, the woman's dress) against solid areas of color (the vertical back of the desk, the paper of the letter and envelope) and brings the viewer close to the room's shallow space, where forced perspective is evident in the oddly skewed writing panel of the desk. These stylistic choices were influenced by traditional Japanese printmaking, yet the woman's garments and the other objects are all contemporary details of Cassatt's world.
Drypoint and aquatint on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Child's Bath
In this intimately observed vignette of a woman bathing her young daughter, Cassatt again combines certain stylistic influences of Japanese art with the subject matter of her own milieu. The variety of patterns in this composition, including several floral designs and the bold stripes of the woman's dress, is united by a restrained palette of grays and mauves; the soft coloration allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject of the scene, the close relationship between mother and child. Their intimacy is demonstrated by their closely positioned faces and by the circle of touch that extends from the woman's hand on the child's foot to the child's hand on the woman's knee. In their shared absorption in their task, they are as closely related as the pitcher and bowl that they are using for this domestic ritual. In works such as this one, Cassatt evoked the traditional artistic subject matter of the Madonna and Child, making her imagery secular rather than religious.
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Cassatt's largest work, a 58-by-12-foot mural, was painted for the Women's Building of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was comprised of three panels: Young Girls Pursuing Fame; Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science; and Arts, Music, Dancing. Unfortunately, the entire mural was destroyed at the close of the exposition and is only recorded in a few black-and-white photographs and one colored print of the central panel. This detail of Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science provides a glimpse into Cassatt's influences and themes for this monumental work. The mural borrowed from sources as diverse as Italian Renaissance frescoes, Japanese prints, and Les Nabis, but once again Cassatt transformed these materials into something that was hers alone. By showing a community of women assisting and supporting one another, she presented the audience of the Columbian Exposition with a very modern scene that symbolized female independence and progress on the verge of a new century in America.
Oil on canvas - (destroyed)
Mother and Child
By the turn of the century, Cassatt was working almost exclusively with the subject of mothers and children, using professional models for her figures. In this painting, she again looks closely at an interaction between women at different stages of life. The mother's fashionable outfit serves as a foil for the child's innocent nudity, and the two figures are united by their gestures and their gazes. By including two mirrors within the composition, Cassatt established a complex spatial and conceptual arrangement of images within images. Artists from Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens to Édouard Manet had depicted women looking at themselves in mirrors, seeing themselves as objects of beauty to be admired by others. Cassatt was aware of this tradition in Western art, but she subverted it in Mother and Child. Here, the woman and girl both look into the small, circular mirror, where they regard the child's reflection together. In this enigmatic work, the true subjects then become the young girl's evolving feminine identity and her future womanhood under the guidance of maternal influence.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Biography of Mary Cassatt
Childhood and Education
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born to a comfortably upper-middle-class family: her father was a successful stockbroker, and her mother belonged to a prosperous banking family. The Cassatts lived in France and Germany from 1851 to 1855, giving the young Mary an early exposure to European arts and culture. She also learned French and German as a child; these language skills would serve her well in her later career abroad. Little else is known about her childhood, but she may have visited the 1855 Paris World's Fair, at which she would have viewed the art of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, among other French masters.
In 1860, at the age of 16, Cassatt began two years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1865, she asked her parents to let her continue her artistic training abroad. Despite their initial misgivings, they agreed, and she moved to Paris and studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme. After a brief return to the United States from 1870 through 1871, during which she was frustrated by a lack of artistic resources and opportunities, she set out again for Paris. In the early 1870s she also traveled to Spain, Italy, and Holland, where she familiarized herself with the work of such artists as Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, and Antonio da Correggio.
By 1874 Cassatt had established herself in a studio in Paris. Three years later, her parents and her sister Lydia joined her in France. Her family frequently served as models for her work of the late 1870s and 1880s, which included many images of contemporary women at the theater and the opera, in gardens and parlors. Always single-minded and self-reliant, Cassatt now had the opportunity to concentrate on her art in a city where, as she later said, "women [did] not have to fight for recognition if they did serious work."
Cassatt had a painting accepted and praised at the Salon of 1872, and she exhibited her work at the Salons of the next few years. However, when one of her entries was refused by the Salon in 1875, and neither of her entries was accepted in 1877, she became disenchanted with the politics and traditional tastes of Paris's official art world. When the artist Edgar Degas invited her in 1877 to join the group of independent artists known as the Impressionists, she was delighted. She was already an admirer of Degas's art, and she soon became close friends with Degas; the two frequently worked side by side, encouraging and advising each other. She also socialized with other fellow artists in this circle. Camille Pissarro, for example, was an older member of the group who acted as a mentor to Cassatt. Berthe Morisot was another female artist who exhibited with the Impressionists; she was a close contemporary to Cassatt, and she shared Cassatt's concentration on domestic scenes.
Cassatt exhibited her work with the Impressionists in Paris from 1879 onwards, and in 1886 she was included in the first major exhibition of Impressionist art in the United States, held at the Durand-Ruel galleries in New York. She continued to specialize in scenes of women in domestic interiors, with an Impressionist emphasis on quickly captured moments of contemporary life, and she expanded her technique from oil painting and drawing to pastels and printmaking. Japanese art had been very popular in Paris since it was featured at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, and Cassatt (like many Impressionists) incorporated its visual devices into her own work. She also shared with the Impressionists a general conviction that academic art was outdated and a commitment to exploring fresh new means of depicting everyday modern life.
By the 1880s, Cassatt was particularly well known for her sensitive depictions of mothers and children. These works, like all her portrayals of women, may have achieved such popular success for a specific reason: they filled a societal need to idealize women's domestic roles at a time when many women were, in fact, beginning to take an interest in voting rights, dress reform, higher education, and social equality. Yet Cassatt's depictions of her fellow upper-middle-class and upper-class women were never simplistic; they contained layers of meaning behind the airy brushwork and fresh colors of her Impressionist technique. Cassatt herself never married or had children, choosing instead to dedicate her entire life to her artistic profession. She shared and admired progressive attitude of Bertha Honore Palmer, a businesswoman and philanthropist who invited Cassatt to paint a mural for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and who felt that "women should be someone and not something."
After 1900, Cassatt suffered from failing health and deteriorating eyesight. However, she maintained close friendships with other artists and important art world figures in France, from Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the American collectors Harry and Lousine Havemeyer. Although she and Degas suffered a rift in their friendship during the infamous Dreyfus affair of the late 1890s (Cassatt, like Pissarro and Monet, was pro-Dreyfus, while Degas sided against Dreyfus), they later made amends. In 1904 Cassatt was recognized for her cultural contributions by the French government, which awarded her the order of Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur. She made her last visit to the United States in 1908. By this time she had suffered several personal losses; her beloved sister, Lydia, died after a long illness in 1882, and her brother Alexander, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, died in 1906.
By 1914, due to her increasing blindness, Cassatt was no longer able to work, although she continued to exhibit her art. She lived primarily in Grasse during World War I before returning to her country home, a chateau located in Le Mesnil-Theribus, fifty miles northwest of Paris. Cassatt died on June 14, 1926.
The Legacy of Mary Cassatt
Cassatt was active into the 1910s, and by her late years she was able to witness the emergence of modernism in Europe and the United States; however, her signature style remained consistent. The waning critical taste for Impressionism after her death in the 1920s meant that her influence on other artists was limited. One exception was a group of women artists based in Montreal, Canada, in the 1920s that came to be known as the "Beaver Hall Group." This was the first Canadian art association in which professional women artists played a significant role, and its members (including Mabel May, Lilias Torrance Newton, and Prudence Heward) followed Cassatt's example of working closely together and studying abroad. Cassatt also influenced Lucy Bacon, a California-born artist who studied with the Impressionists in Paris.
However, Cassatt's status in art history has been significant and influential in the later 20th and 21st centuries. She is considered one of the most important American expatriate artists of the late 1800s, along with John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. She has also been the focus of influential scholarship on female artists, and her work has been discussed by key feminist art historians including Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin. Cassatt's most public legacy may be her influence on American patrons who collected her work and the work of her European contemporaries and later bequeathed it to museums. One prominent example was Louisine Elder Havemeyer, a close friend whose extensive collection of Impressionist art is now a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Mary Cassatt
- Mary Cassatt: A LifeOur PickBy Nancy Mowll Matthews
- Mary Cassatt: Impressionist PainterBy Lois Harris
- May Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Collection of Ambroise VollardOur PickBy Marc Rosen, Susan Pinsky, Nancy Mowll Matthews, and Sarah Bertalan
- Mary Cassatt: Paintings and PrintsBy Frank Getlein
- Mary Cassatt: Modern WomanBy Judith Barter
- Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern WomenBy Griselda Pollock