Detail from Mary Cassatt Self Portrait. c.1880, gouache and watercolour over graphite on paper. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.76.33. CC0.)
Happy birthday to Mary Cassatt, who was born in Pennsylvania on this day in 1844. Mary Cassatt is best known for her Impressionist paintings, her professional relationship with Edgar Degas and her work in printmaking. She was the only American artist officially associated with the Impressionist circle, having settled permanently in France in 1874.
She is a fascinating female artist, and in celebration of her birthday, in today’s post I’m celebrating her life and work!
Born into a well-off family in what is now part of Pittsburgh, Cassatt began her formal training as an artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1862.
She continued her artistic education in Europe from 1865, studying in Rome, Paris and Madrid. In Paris she was taught by Jean Léon Gérôme and Thomas Couture. In 1868, she exhibited her first work at the Paris Salon: The Mandolin Player.
However, her time in Europe was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 – Cassatt returned to Philadelphia, but it wasn’t long before she came back. Just over a year later, Cassatt was studying the works of Correggio and Parmigianino in Parma, Italy, which were followed by trips in 1873 to examine and copy works by Velázquez, Rubens and Hals in Spain, Belgium and Holland. By 1874, she lived permanently in Paris, and three years later, she was joined by her parents and sister.
Relationship with Degas
Degas saw Cassatt’s work at the Paris Salon, and in 1877, he invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists. By this point, Cassatt (like the rest of the Impressionist circle and their associated Realist artists) had become frustrated with the constraints placed upon the works that could be shown at the Salon.
She actually exhibited with the Impressionists at four of their eight exhibitions: in 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886. The first exhibition saw eleven of her paintings on show.
Of course, her association with the group had a profound impact on her art, and her friendship with Degas saw them encourage each other. Cassatt helped him sell his works in the US, and Degas showed her engraving and pastels. Their studios were incredibly close to each other, so they frequently collaborated.
Of Degas’ work, Cassatt said that in 1875, she saw his pastels in a gallery window, and she
“used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.”
Developing her own style
Although Cassatt took direction from the tenets of Impressionism, she developed a unique artistic focus. This is unsurprising, because of the independence she sought as a woman artist throughout her career: she travelled to Europe despite her parents not being keen (they had been preparing her to be a wife and mother, not an artist of independent means).
She was incredibly interested in painting mothers and children, and I love these tender yet unfussy depictions.
I am also fascinated by Cassatt’s printmaking: she loved Japanese prints and collected them. She loved the use of colour blocking and the simple, beautiful use of lines. Cassatt went to an exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e prints in 1890 at the École des Beaux-Arts, which led her to produce a set of ten etchings that allowed her to explore the styles she admired within the Japanese woodblock prints and paintings. Aren’t they beautiful?
Cassatt really struggled with her eyesight in later years – it deteriorated so much, she had to stop making prints in 1901 and painting altogether by 1904. (The same fate also befell her close friend Degas).
She did encourage the arts in other ways, however, by being a consultant to those who wished to collect. She was enthusiastic about both Old Masters and her artistic contemporaries, reflecting the key parts of her honing her own style through observing the works of both.
American art museums have quite a lot to thank Cassatt for: when she assisted art collectors, she often did so upon the proviso that they would eventually donate their collections to such institutions. Her friend Louise Havemeyer, whom she knew before she married her husband Harry Havemeyer, took Cassatt with them on a collecting trip to Italy and Spain in 1901. Alongside this, Cassatt suggested the collection of Impressionist pieces, most of which now belong to the collection of MoMA, in New York.
Cassatt died on the fourteenth of June 1926 at her countryside home, Château de Beaufresne, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of a female American artist, adviser and printmaker.