Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 22: "I hated conventional art."

Do you know who this is?
-She was the first popularly recognized American female artist.
-She never married.
-She backed the suffrage movement in the early twentieth century.

She was the only American involved in the original Impressionist art movement. She was self-disciplined, intense, and outspoken. She never entered into marriage: “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.”

Mary Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, as one of seven children born to Robert Simpson Cassatt and Katherine Kelso Johnston Cassatt. Her family was well-to-do family of wealth. Her father was successful as a stockbroker and land speculator. Her mother came from a successful banking family.

Mary began attending school in Philadelphia at the age of six. However, she grew up in a world where those of financial means viewed travel as an integral part of education. Consequently, she spent five years in Europe where she learned German and French, toured the capitals of Europe – such as Berlin, London, and Paris – and was given her first lessons in drawing and music. The family set sail in June 1851 – when Mary was 7 - spending a month in London, then two years in France and another two years in Germany. During those years Mary could well have seen the Crystal Palace in London and the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. It was in Paris that some of the artwork of Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas, both of whom would have an influence in her life and career as an artist. Degas would later say of her: “Most women paint as though they are trimming hats. Not you.”

By the time the eleven year old Mary returned from Europe, she had completed her fundamental education. She had studied classical literature, was fluent in French and German, and had attended local schools in the countries she lived in during the European tour. When she was fifteen she overcame her parents objections to her becoming a professional artist and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Soon after the end of the Civil War, when Mary was twenty-two, she declared that she could learn no more in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her parents yielded and let her go back to Europe, accompanied by her mother as a chaperone. She would study the techniques of the masters throughout Europe, travelling to Rome, Seville, Antwerp, and Paris. She copied paintings to grasp the techniques used by the masters and to develop and refine her own. In 1868 one of her paintings was accepted for the first time for public display. That painting - A Mandoline Player - is today one of only two paintings that can be documented as being painted during the first decade of her artistic career.

She would return to her parents home in the United States in 1870. Her father continued to object to her chosen career by not paying for her art supplies. Mary would place two of her paintings in a New York gallery – and while many viewers made positive comments, no one bought them. Mary quickly became frustrated with the lack of the inspiration and freedom she had experienced in Europe. She used the money paid by the Archbishop of Pittsburgh for two paintings to finance her return to Europe in late 1871.

The time spent in Europe would mark her transition from Romanticist to Impressionist. Although she had some success, Mary became frustrated with the established salons and their methods of judging art – judging which created known artists and hence sales and income for that artist.

Her father was still insisting that she pay her own painting expenses, and by 1877 times were becoming difficult for Mary. Her family rejoined her, and would live in Europe for the next eighteen years. She never married, dedicating her life to her work. In 1878, she would break with the Romanticist when invited by Degas to show her paintings in an Impressionist salon. She quickly realized she had found her niche in the art world. She commented:

“I accepted with joy. At last, I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art.”
Her style would continue to grow and change, and by 1886 she was no longer a member of any established school of art. She began experimenting with a variety of techniques. She painted what she saw, and her most popular paintings revolved around women with children. When she returned to America in 1884, she began to extend her influence on America art by giving advice to art dealers. The 1890s were her most productive years, and she became the role model of young American artists. At the dawn of the twentieth century - although her work was no longer the cutting edge of the art world - she became an advisor to several art dealers. By 1914 she had to stop painting because she was nearly blind – yet she took up the cause of women’s suffrage.
She died on June 14, 1926 at Château de Beaufresne, near Paris, and was buried in the family vault at Mesnil-Théribus, France. Her works are still popular today, and studied by students around the world.


Mary Cassatt : DVD [videorecording] : American impressionist
Michael Cain: Mary Cassatt (Juvenile)
Nancy Matthews: Mary Cassatt
Griselda Pollack: Mary Cassatt
Julia Carson: Mary Cassatt


Life of Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt
Metropolitan Museum of Art
National Gallery of Art
National Women’s Hall of Fame
Web Museum



Cassatt 01. Self Portrait: Wikipedia
Cassatt 02. The Mandolin Player: The Humanities Web
Cassatt 03. The Mothers Kiss (1890): National Gallery of Art
Cassatt 04. The Child’s Bath (1893): Art Institute of Chicago
Cassatt 05. Signature: Museum Syndicate

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