Mary Cassatt 1844 —1926
Mary Cassatt, foremost among the young AMerican Impressionist whi began their careers working abroad, was the painter most often known for her imagenes of the social and private lifes of women, with particcular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
Mary Cassatt is revered for her ability to express emotion, narrative and a personal intimacy in her portraiture, particularly in the private realm of women. In La femme au mouchoir she captures her elegantly dressed sitter in a moment of deep contemplation: the woman pulls her arms close to her body and gazes downward to suggest solitude and despondency, yet allows Cassatt to quickly capture this personal moment and share it with the public. The sitter grasps a white handkerchief that partly obscures her face, leaving the viewer to wonder if she may have been crying, simply has a cold or if it is a subliminal prop meant to suggest coyness, introversion or glumness. She is at once elegant and youthful, with a midnight blue tailored dress and a stylish rosebud-adorned bonnet and her flawless skin glows in hues of peach and pink. Nancy Mowll Mathews observes that Cassatt's "subjects [were] drawn from the world around [her] with an ironic eye, [and] displayed a fragile balance between the public and the private, discretion and indiscretion, beauty and ugliness. A rigid or uninformed viewer could easily be confused by the transient and shifting effects of this style and, with some justification, feel mocked by [this] sophisticated artist. However, Cassatt was intellectually nimble and prided herself on her own penetrating opinions on art and society. From her very first efforts to incorporate Impressionist devices into her work she was fascinated with the aesthetic power of a painting's successful balance of contradictory elements." (in Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, p. 40).
Cassatt grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education; she spent 5 years in Europe and visited many of the capitals, including London, Paris, and Berlin. While abroad she learned German and French and had her first lessons in drawing and music. Her first exposure to French artists Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet was likely at the Paris World's Fair of 1855. Also exhibited at the exhibition were Degas and Pissarro, both of whom would be her future colleagues and mentors.
Even though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the early age of 15. Part of her parents' concern may have been Cassatt's exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behavior of some of the male students. Although about 20 percent of the students were female, most viewed art as a socially valuable skill; few of them were determined, as Cassatt was, to make art their career. She continued her studies during the years of the American Civil War. Among her fellow students was Thomas Eakins, later the controversial director of the Academy.
Impatient with the slow pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study the old masters on her own. She later said, "There was no teaching" at the Academy. Female students could not use live models (until somewhat later) and the principal training was primarily drawing from casts.
Cassatt decided to end her studies (at that time, no degree was granted). After overcoming her father's objections she moved to Paris in 1866, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones. Since women could not yet attend the École des Beaux-Arts, she applied to study privately with masters from the school and was accepted to study with Jean-Léon Gérôme, a highly regarded teacher known for his hyper-realistic technique and his depiction of exotic subjects. A few months later Gérôme would also accept Eakins as a student. Cassatt augmented her artistic training with daily copying in the LouvreElizabeth Jane Gardner met and married famed academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (she obtained the required permit, which was necessary to control the "copyists", usually low-paid women, who daily filled the museum to paint copies for sale). The museum also served as a social meeting place for Frenchmen and American female students, who like Cassatt, were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized. In this manner, fellow artist and friend
After struggling for almost a decade for recognition in the established Paris Salon, Mary Cassatt eagerly accepted Edgar Degas's invitation to join him in exhibiting her work with the other members of the Impressionist group in 1877. While they have become known as Impressionists, in the late nineteenth century, they "preferred to be called 'Independents'" (N.M. Mathews, ibid, p. 37). The term "Independents" is significant as it implies a forceful and noble rejection of the starched Parisian art world in favor of purely autonomous conduct. In fact, "Reminiscing thirty-five years after the fact, Cassatt still had strong feeling about the decision; in 1912 she told her biographer, Achille Segard, 'I accepted with joy. I hated conventional art. I began to live.' Clearly, she recalled the years of trying to find her way in the labyrinth art world of the 1870s, juggling the demands of her conservative American milieu, official taste, and her own independence, as a dark period, and she considered it the turning point of her life when, at the age of thirty-three she was given the opportunity to paint and exhibit freely" (ibid., p. 37).
Cassatt's artistic output changed dramatically as soon as she made the bold shift to Impressionism. Her works took on a more daring character and she developed her own unique style, infusing her gift of expressing the narrative, particularly from the female point of view, while mastering the Impressionist style of painting. The rich and murky palette of La femme au mouchoir highlighted with cold white tones, and the vigorous and heavy brushstroke, demonstrate Cassatt's sophistication and individuality within this movement. Cassatt's unique ability to capture fleeting yet poignant moments of everyday life established her as one of the leading painters of her day, her legacy a major influence on other female artists. It has been said of Mary Cassatt that she is not only the greatest woman artist of the nineteenth century, but that she is also "worthy of consideration as the most significant American artist, male or female, of her generation" (A.S. Harris and L. Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles, 1976, p. 58).
Mary Cassatt was also an excellent printmaker. After experimenting with different printmaking techniques like etching and aquatint she finally discovered drypoint combined with aquatint as her favorite intaglio process. Between 1889 and 1890 she created a set of twelve wonderful drypoints. From 1890 to 1891 she made a series of ten color prints, known as The Ten. This series is considered as a landmark in Impressionist printmaking. Mary Cassatt prints also show a strong influence of Japanese printmaking and later of Renaissance paintings. She continued to make prints until 1896.
Mary Cassatt influenced Impressionism not only as an artist. She also had an important role in sponsoring and in financial promotion of Impressionist art. She often bought paintings of her friends when they were short of cash. And with her connections to rich American families, she encouraged many of her countrymen to buy Impressionist art. Quite a few of the great Impressionist art collections in the USA were established as a result of her activities. The collection of 19th century French paintings of the Havemeyers was largely mediated by her. The collection is now in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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Cassatt's works are in 94 museums including:
Addison Gallery of American Art; Amon Carter Museum of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Birmingham Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Butler Institute of American Art; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie; Chrysler Museum of Art; Cincinnati Art Museum; Colby College Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Art; The Dayton Art Institute; Delaware Art Museum; Denver Art Museum; De Young Museum of San Francisco; Fogg Art Museum; Georgia Museum of Art; High Museum, Atlanta; Hirshhorn Museum and Scupture Garden; Hunter Museum of American Art; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Joslyn Art Museum; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Lowe Art Museum; Maier Museum of Art; Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum; Mead Art Museum; Memorial Art Gallery; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Michael C Carlos Museum; Musee D'Orsay, Paris; Musees Nationaux, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX; National Gallery of Art; National Museum of Women in the Arts; National Portrait Gallery; New Orleans Museum of Art; Norton Museum of Art; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum; Portland Art Museum; Rhode Island School of Design-Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; The Seattle Museum of Art, Sheldon Museum of Art; Smith College Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Princeton University Art; Museum; Baltimore Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art; Detroit Art Institute; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Newark Museum; Montclair Art Museum; Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis; Speed Art Museum; The Columbus Museum-Georgia; The Dayton Art Institute; Worcester Art Museum; and University of Wyoming Art Museum;
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