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Mary Cassatt: Why She Resonates Today

For the uninitiated, Mary Cassatt might seem like a French painter. After all, she was admired for the French-influenced Impressionistic work she produced. And she spent much of her life in France. But appearances are deceiving. Mary Cassatt was actually born just outside of Pittsburgh! Her wealthy family could afford to send her overseas for her education. And there she stayed. What helped shape her decision to remain in France post-college were her parents: they were anti-suffrage and Mary, ever independent, was a staunch suffragist. Her family encouraged her to come back to the States, but when she saw that political opinions weren’t aligning with her own, she remained in Europe:

“After all give me France. Women do not have to fight for recognition here, if they do serious work.” -Mary Cassatt, in a letter to a friend

As an activist, Mary Cassatt saw the same kind of tumult in the late 1800’s that many progressive women and men experience today, in reaction to the U.S.’s political and social climate. And what about her art? How does one distinguish that from her political life? One would be challenged to try to separate the two and might conclude that the political fights she witnessed fueled her passion to be an independent female artist. Not only did she aspire to be a self-sufficient artist, she wanted to be the greatest artist of her time.

 
On Balcony Cassatt.jpg

On the Balcony,

During Carnival

Mary Cassatt 1873

The above oil painting is a great example of the concept of “artists stealing,” which we playfully addressed in an earlier post. According to Mary Cassatt, An American Impressionist by Gerhard Gruitrooy, this balcony scene was inspired by Manet’s famous painting The Balcony. And Manet’s work was, in turn, inspired by Goya.

Woman Reading Cassatt.jpg

Young Woman Reading

Mary Cassatt circa 1878

“This scene of a young woman reading is imbued with the romantic overtones of the decorative style of Cassatt’s teacher Charles Chaplin, whose classes for women she frequented from 1867 to 1868, together with there friend Eliza Haldeman. The striped upholstering of the couch serves as a foil before which the figure is placed in a slightly twisted, almost artificial arrangement. This is not yet the determined, independent-minded woman whom Cassatt was to represent in her later work.” From Mary Cassatt, An American Impressionist.

Child Cassatt.jpg

The Child’s Caress

Mary Cassatt 1890

What glee, to observe a painting nearly a century and a half ago that confirms children poking at their mother’s faces isn’t new.

About this work: “In the mature phase of her career Cassatt moved away from Impressionistic renderings and pursued a more compact style characterized by solid forms with clear, linear definition. A good example is this painting, where the woman’s sturdy figure is complemented but the pudgy little girl sitting across her lap. The brushstrokes are smooth and creamy, delicately modeling the forms. Light plays a major role in defining the bodies and the texture of the clothes rather than diffusing their substance.” From Mary Cassatt, An American Impressionist.

May-Lily Lee