Mary Cassatt, who has been described as one of ‘Les Trois Grandes Dames” of impressionism, has the distinction of being the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1844 to a well off family but it was during an extended trip to Europe, including Paris, while still a child that she discovered art. Having decided to become a professional artist, she attended Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but disappointed with the attitude and training here, she moved to Paris in 1866 to continue her studies, despite opposition from her parents As woman were still banned from attending the prestigious École des Beaux Arts, she studied privately with some of the leading artists of the day. Her first success with the Paris Salon was in 1868 when, A Mandoline Player, a painting executed in an academic style and on loan to the exhibition from a Private Collection, was accepted for exhibition by the jury. However, she eventually became disilliusioned with the Salon and the academic art they preferred and in 1875, when she first saw the work of Edgar Degas, she is quoted as saying ‘ It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it”. So in 1877 when she was invited by Degas to exhibit at the Impressionist exhibition, she jumped at the chance. One of her masterpieces from this period is Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art Washington, a compelling piece of work which stood out in the first room of the exhibition. The blue of the four easy chairs which take up a large portion of the canvas is striking and captivating. The little girl is shown flopped on one of the chairs while a little dog sleeps on the one next to her, all depicting a cosy domestic interior. It has now come to light, following infrared photography, that Degas contributed to the painting.
Degas and Cassatt developed a close friendship and they could often be seen at the Louvre studying art together. They had a lot in common, both being from affluent backgrounds, well educated, both interested in figurative painting and both remaining unmarried. They had studios near each other and they advised and encouraged each other. Degas painted Cassatt’s portrait (left) in 1877, now in the National Gallery, Washington, and although she hung it in her studio she found the painting ‘repugnant’. Degas paints her leaning over looking at the cards she holds in her hands and this painting contrasts sharply with the pose she adopts for her own self portrait, (which were rare), which she painted around the same time and in which she appears to wear the same outfit. In her self portrait (right) from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, which is sketchily executed, she sits upright and presents herself as a professional artist and elegantly dressed woman.
Mary Cassatt came from a francophile family, her father being descended from a French Huguenot family who settled in America in 1642 and her mother spoke fluent French. So it was no surprise then that, three years after Mary settled in Paris, her parents together with her sister Lydia moved to join her in 1877. Mary was very close to her sister Lydia and she became the subject of many of her paintings. The Cup of Tea, c 1880/1881, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, depicts Lydia dressed in fashionable clothes celebrating both sisters love of fashion. In the painting, Lydia wears a stunning pink dress whose magnificent white ruff matches the cuffs of her dress and long gloves. Here Lydia is taking part in the very fashionable social ritual of tea drinking and she is depicted elegantly holding a cup. Unfortunately, Lydia suffered from a kidney disease and died prematurely in 1882 aged 45 leaving Mary deeply affected.
The exhibit also displays a portrait, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of her older brother, Alexander J. Cassat with his son Robert, which was executed whilst on a trip to Paris in 1884. Cassat shows the sitters with serious expressions and dressed in black but she softens the view by depicting her nephew sitting casually on the arm of his fathers chair with his arm around his neck. Alexander was a very successful business man becoming president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and on his death was one of the richest man in America. He was proud of his sisters success and due to her influence he became a collector of impressionist work.
By 1894 Cassatt had bought Chateau de Beaufresne, a cottage about 50 miles north west of Paris where she was visited by many of her artist friends and where she would remain until her death in 1926. There was a small pond on the grounds and it is probably this pond that features in the painting Summertime, 1894, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, which shows a woman and young girl on a boat in the lake. Equal importance is given both to the figures and the landscape, unusual for Cassat who liked to concentrate on her figures. Cassatt uses red, orange, blue and green brushstrokes to create a rippling effect on the water and the result is stunning. The two figures on the boat gaze at the duck passing by and the whole scene evokes the image of a leisurely peaceful summer’s day.
Mary Cassatt’s became famous for her figure paintings, particularly of woman in domestic scenes and especially mothers with their children. The last room of the exhibition displays several works with this signature theme of ‘Mother and Child’ which Cassatt is so identified with and which can be seen as modern versions of the Virgin Mary and Child. Seated Woman with a Child in Her Arms, c 1890, Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, is extremely tender in its depiction of a boy in his mothers arms as he rests his head on his arm which in turn rests on her shoulder. The mother, who is seated at a table with a pitcher and washbasin, has her back is to us and she seems preoccupied with some task. The tenderness of the scene is accentuated by the beautiful tones of pink and blue used by Cassatt.
This last room also displays Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror),c 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which was purchased by the Havemeyers, and who referred to it as ‘The Florentine Madonna”. The reference to the Virgin Mary and Child is clear from the the contrapposto stance of the young boy and in the oval mirror behind him which acts as a halo.
The exhibition is a great tribute to Mary Cassatt and as well as the works referred to above, it also highlights her interest in the creative process and the experimental nature of her work. It shows her as a modern independent woman who advocated equal rights for women and she was a revelation to me.