Mary Cassatt

1844Allegheny, United States | 1926Le Mesnil-Théribus, France
Mary Cassatt — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

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American painter, pastellist and engraver.

Born to a wealthy family, Mary Cassatt spent part of her childhood in Paris, Heidelberg and Darmstadt. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1860 to 1864, she returned to France to study genre painting with Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Charles Chaplin (1825-1891), Paul-Constant Soyer (1823-1903), Édouard Frère (1819-1886) and Thomas Couture (1815-1879). She visited the Louvre and made her debut at the Salon in 1868 under the name Mary Stevenson with Joueuse de mandoline [Mandolin player]. Between 1872 and 1874 she spent time in Italy, in Rome and Parma, where she made copies of Correggio (1489-1534) and studied engraving. She also travelled to Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, before settling permanently in France in 1874.
At the 1874 Salon, her painting Ida left an impression on Edgar Degas (1834-1917), while M. Cassatt herself was deeply moved by two of Degas’s pastels she saw at a Parisian gallery. The two developed a strong artistic bond, sharing their passion for the masters, drawing, pastel work and technical experimentation, but also their refusal to paint outdoors and their interest in themes of modern life. In 1877 E. Degas invited M. Cassatt to exhibit with the “Indépendants” group, which she joined in 1878 after having her work rejected by the Salon. She took part in four of the group’s exhibitions, in 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886. In 1878 the canvas Petite fille dans un fauteuil bleu [Little girl in a blue armchair], now in the National Gallery in Washington, was rejected by the American section of the Paris World’s Fair for its radicality. During her Impressionist years, M. Cassatt developed themes related to gender representation and codes, including pictures of female theatregoers in their boxes with characteristic accessories (bouquets, fans, opera glasses). She played an instrumental part in the circulation of Impressionism in the United States by advising her friend Louisine Elder Havemeyer, who became the country’s major collector of E. Degas’s work and the originator of the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s collection of Impressionist art. She also encouraged her brother Alexander Cassatt to buy some of the first works by Claude Monet (1840-1926) and to exhibit them along with the work of E. Degas in the United States.

M. Cassatt used distemper, metallic paint and mixed techniques, and contributed to the revival of pastel and etching. She exhibited drypoint and aquatint etchings in 1889 and 1890 with the Société des Peintres-Graveurs Français (Society of French painter-engravers). In 1891 Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris organised her first solo exhibition, where she showed ten colour aquatint prints “in the Japanese manner”. She produced over two hundred and fifty etchings and worked meticulously on her plates, in much the same way as Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Her aim was to use etching to make her art more accessible. In the 1890s she increasingly explored pastel in portraits of women and children. She donated her pastel Femme et enfant [Woman and child, 1897], later renamed Mère et enfant [Mother and child], to the French state. The canvas is now part of the Musée d’Orsay collection. She became famous for her mother and child paintings – a theme that enabled her to weave connections with classic madonnas and to express the voluptuousness of the flesh.

An outspoken feminist, M. Cassatt was commissioned a monumental picture, Modern Woman, for the main hall of the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The painting cemented her fame in her native country, where her first solo exhibition was held at the Durand-Ruel gallery in New York in 1895. M. Cassatt purchased the Château de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Théribus in 1894 and worked there until 1914, after which her eyesight started to decline. In 1915, her work was featured in an exhibition supporting women’s suffrage at Knoedler & Co. in New York. M. Cassatt is considered one of the major artists of the late 19th century in the United States, but is still relatively little-known in France, where her works are underrepresented in public collections and where she has yet to be honoured with a major exhibition in a national museum.

Leïla Jarbouai

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in partnership with musée d’Orsay.
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions

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