American Impressionist Painter, Draftsman, Genre Painter,
Portraitist and Printmaker
1844 - 1926
Cezanne is one of the most liberal artists I have ever seen... he grants that everyone may be as honest and as true to nature from their convictions; he doesn't believe that everyone should see alike.
I am independent! I can live and I love to work.
There's only one thing in life for a woman; it's to be a mother... A woman artist must be... capable of making primary sacrifices.
It is as well not to have too great an admiration for your master's work. You will be in less danger of imitating him.
The first sight of Degas' pictures was the turning point of my artistic life.
Sometimes it made Degas furious that he could not find a chink in my armor, and there would be months when we just could not see each other, and then something I painted would bring us together again.
If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color.
At some future time I shall see New York the artist's ground. I think you will create an American School.
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker. She lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists.
Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh. She was born into comfortable circumstances: her father, Robert Simpson Cassat (later Cassatt), was a successful stockbroker and land speculator, and her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family. The ancestral name had been Cossart. Cassatt was a distant cousin of artist Robert Henri. Cassatt was one of seven children, of which two died in infancy. Her family moved eastward, first to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then to the Philadelphia area, where she began schooling at age six.
Cassatt grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education; she spent five 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 fifteen. 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 twenty per cent 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 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 Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she applied to study privately with masters from the school and was accepted to study with Jean-Leon Gerome, a highly regarded teacher known for his hyper-realistic technique and his depiction of exotic subjects. A few months later Gerome would also accept Eakins as a student. Cassatt augmented her artistic training with daily copying in the Louvre (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 Elizabeth Jane Gardner met and married famed academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Toward the end of 1866, she joined a painting class taught by Charles Chaplin, a noted genre artist. In 1868, Cassatt also studied with artist Thomas Couture, whose subjects were mostly romantic and urban. On trips to the countryside, the students drew from life, particularly the peasants going about their daily activities. In 1868 one of her paintings, 'A Mandoline Player', was accepted for the first time by the selection jury for the Paris Salon. This work is in the Romantic style of Corot and Couture, and is one of only two paintings from the first decade of her career that can be documented today. The French art scene was in a process of change, as radical artists such as Courbet and Manet tried to break away from accepted Academic tradition and the Impressionists were in their formative years. Cassatt's friend Eliza Haldeman wrote home that artists "are leaving the Academy style and each seeking a new way, consequently just now everything is Chaos". Cassatt, on the other hand, would continue to work in the traditional manner, submitting works to the Salon for over ten years, with increasing frustration.
Brother Alexander Cassatt marries Lois Buchanan, the niece of President Buchanan.
Returning to the United States in the late summer of 1870-as the Franco-Prussian War was starting-Cassatt lived with her family in Altoona. Her father continued to resist her chosen vocation, and paid for her basic needs, but not her art supplies. She placed two of her paintings in a New York gallery and found many admirers but no purchasers. She was also dismayed at the lack of paintings to study while staying at her summer residence. Cassatt even considered giving up art, as she was determined to make an independent living. She wrote in a letter of July, 1871, "I have given up my studio and torn up my father's portrait, and have not touched a brush for six weeks nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe. I am very anxious to go out west next fall and get some employment, but I have not yet decided where." She traveled to Chicago to try her luck but lost some of her early paintings in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Shortly afterward, her work attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, who commissioned her to paint two copies of paintings by Correggio in Parma, Italy, advancing her enough money to cover her travel expenses and part of her stay. In her excitement she wrote, "O how wild I am to get to work, my fingers barely itch and my eyes water to see a fine picture again". With Emily Sartain, a fellow artist from a well-regarded artistic family from Philadelphia, Cassatt set out for Europe again.
Within months of her return to Europe in the autumn of 1871, Cassatt's prospects had brightened. Her painting 'Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival' was well received in the Salon of 1872, and was purchased. She attracted much favorable notice in Parma and was supported and encouraged by the art community there: "All Parma is talking of Miss Cassatt and her picture, and everyone is anxious to know her".
After completing her commission for the archbishop, Cassatt traveled to Madrid and Seville, where she painted a group of paintings of Spanish subjects, including 'Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla'. In 1874, she made the decision to take up residence in France. She was joined by her sister Lydia who shared an apartment with her. Cassatt continued to express criticism of the politics of the Salon and the conventional taste that prevailed there. She was blunt in her comments, as reported by Sartain, who wrote: "she is entirely too slashing, snubs all modern art, disdains the Salon pictures of Cabanel, Bonnat, all the names we are used to revere". Cassatt saw that works by female artists were often dismissed with contempt unless the artist had a friend or protector on the jury, and she would not flirt with jurors to curry favor. Her cynicism grew when one of the two pictures she submitted in 1875 was refused by the jury, only to be accepted the following year after she darkened the background. She had quarrels with Sartain, who thought Cassatt too outspoken and self-centered, and eventually they parted. Out of her distress and self-criticism, Cassatt decided that she needed to move away from genre paintings and onto more fashionable subjects, in order to attract portrait commissions from American socialites abroad, but that attempt bore little fruit at first.
In 1877, both her entries were rejected, and for the first time in seven years she had no works in the Salon. At this low point in her career she was invited by Edgar Degas to show her works with the Impressionists, a group that had begun their own series of independent exhibitions in 1874 with much attendant notoriety. The Impressionists had no formal manifesto and varied considerably in subject matter and technique. They tended to prefer open air painting and the application of vibrant color in separate strokes with little pre-mixing, which allows the eye to merge the results in an "impressionistic" manner. The Impressionists had been receiving the wrath of the critics for several years. Henry Bacon, a friend of the Cassatt's, thought that the Impressionists were so radical that they were "afflicted with some hitherto unknown disease of the eye". They already had one female member, artist Berthe Morisot, who became Cassatt's friend and colleague.
Cassatt admired Degas, whose pastels had made a powerful impression on her when she encountered them in an art dealer's window in 1875. "I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art," she later recalled. "It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it." She accepted Degas' invitation with enthusiasm, and began preparing paintings for the next Impressionist show, planned for 1878, which (after a postponement because of the World's Fair) took place on April 10, 1879. She felt comfortable with the Impressionists and joined their cause enthusiastically, declaring: "we are carrying on a despairing fight and need all our forces". Unable to attend cafes with them without attracting unfavorable attention, she met with them privately and at exhibitions. She now hoped for commercial success selling paintings to the sophisticated Parisians who preferred the avant-garde. Her style had gained a new spontaneity during the intervening two years. Previously a studio-bound artist, she had adopted the practice of carrying a sketchbook with her while out-of-doors or at the theater, and recording the scenes she saw.
In 1877, Cassatt was joined in Paris by her father and mother, who returned with her sister Lydia. Mary valued their companionship, as neither she nor Lydia had married. Mary had decided early in life that marriage would be incompatible with her career. Lydia, who was frequently painted by her sister, suffered from recurrent bouts of illness, and her death in 1882 left Cassatt temporarily unable to work.
This work may have been included in the 1879 French Impressionist exhibition in Paris. It clearly was in the exhibition staged by the same group in 1881, along with another image of Cassatt's sister titled Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly.
Cassatt's father insisted that her studio and supplies be covered by her sales, which were still meager. Afraid of having to paint "potboilers" to make ends meet, Cassatt applied herself to produce some quality paintings for the next Impressionist exhibition. Three of her most accomplished works from 1878 were 'Portrait of the Artist' (self-portrait), 'Little Girl in a Blue Armchair', and 'Reading Le Figaro' (portrait of her mother).
Pictorial structure and clarity are the foundation of Cassatt's art. Under Edgar Degas' tutelage, she began to collect and study Japanese prints; their patterns and asymmetric designs greatly influenced her work. Here she placed the girl, the focus of the composition, off-center. The armchairs form a pattern encircling an oddly shaped patch of gray floor in the middle of the picture. As in Japanese art, the forms are tilted up, and the edge of the canvas crops the image.
Cassatt's strong colors and energetic brushwork mark her connection with the French impressionists. In style and subject matter, her art is close to that of Degas and Edouard Manet. Degas, in fact, made suggestions about the composition of this painting and reworked parts of its background.
In Cassatt's pictures, light does not dissolve form. Instead, objects retain their mass and coherence with light enhancing their physical presence.
The picture won approval from the whole family, and was sent back to Alexander in Philadelphia with a note from Mr. Cassatt: "I hope you will be pleased with the portrait, in fact I do not allow myself to doubt that you will be… Here there is but one opinion as to its excellence…"
In 1879, 'Reading Le Figaro' was exhibited by the Society of American Artists in New York, where it won critical acclaim: "Among the technically best pictures in the entire collection was Miss Cassatt's portrait, a capitally-drawn figure of an agreeable-looking, middle-aged lady… It is pleasant to see how well an ordinary person dressed in an ordinary way can be made to look…"
Painted just after her parents' move to Paris in 1877, the picture demonstrates Mrs. Cassatt's rapid acclimatization to her new surroundings. The Parisian newspaper symbolizes her adopted country and situates her within the intellectual and political life of France in a way usually confined to depictions of men.
Cassatt too was having to come to terms with her changed cultural surroundings; this picture affirms her new Impressionist allegiances in its use of the everyday and its robust, truthful representation.
Colors and forms are softer than before, although Cassatt's interest in contrasting patterns and planes still underlines the composition. Mrs. Cassatt's rounded shoulders are echoed and strengthened by the back of the armchair, while her head is centered against the plain creamy wall. The great expanse of white dress gives the figure a solid, even monumental aspect, despite the unassuming, self-absorbed pose.
The latter is reinforced by the mirror reflection, which adds complexity to the play of angles and spatial depth and counteracts the surface spread of pale tones. In these ways Cassatt avoids blandness or crudity, modulating between dark and light tones with great control.
Degas had considerable influence on Cassatt. She became extremely proficient in the use of pastels, eventually creating many of her most important works in this medium. Degas also introduced her to etching, of which he was a recognized master. The two worked side-by-side for awhile, and her draftsmanship gained considerable strength under his tutelage. He depicted her in a series of etchings recording their trips to the Louvre. She had strong feelings for him but learned not to expect too much from his fickle and temperamental nature. The sophisticated and well-dressed Degas, then forty-five, was a welcome dinner guest at the Cassatt residence.
The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 was the most successful to date, despite the absence of Renoir, Sisley, Manet and Cezanne, who were attempting once again to gain recognition at the Salon. Through the efforts of Gustave Caillebotte, who organized and underwrote the show, the group made a profit and sold many works, although the criticism continued as harsh as ever. The Revue des Deux Mondes wrote, "M. Degas and Mlle. Cassatt are, nevertheless, the only artists who distinguish themselves...and who offer some attraction and some excuse in the pretentious show of window dressing and infantile daubing".
Cassatt displayed eleven works, including 'La Loge'. Although critics claimed that Cassatt's colors were too bright and that her portraits were too accurate to be flattering to the subjects, her work was not savaged as was Monet's, whose circumstances were the most desperate of all the Impressionists at that time. She used her share of the profits to purchase a work by Degas and one by Monet. She exhibited in the Impressionist Exhibitions that followed in 1880 and 1881, and she remained an active member of the Impressionist circle until 1886. In 1886, Cassatt provided two paintings for the first Impressionist exhibition in the United States, organized by art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Her friend Louisine Elder married Harry Havemeyer in 1883, and with Cassatt as advisor, the couple began collecting the Impressionists on a grand scale. Much of their vast collection is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She also made several portraits of family members during that period, of which 'Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso' (1885) is one of her best regarded. Cassatt's style then evolved, and she moved away from Impressionism to a simpler, more straightforward approach. She began to exhibit her works in New York galleries as well. After 1886, Cassatt no longer identified herself with any art movement and experimented with a variety of techniques.
Not all the display at the theater occurred on stage, and the young women are equally on view, sitting forward to be seen. But the social code prohibits proper, unmarried young women from looking at others. The woman holding the fan is probably Mary Ellison, a friend of the artist visiting from Philadelphia. Even from behind this screen her gaze is cast modestly down. The other woman, perhaps the daughter of poet Stephane Mallarme, is more forthright than her companion. The two seem to be mirror reflections of each other; while the young Philadelphian hides shyly, her friend is poised with self-confidence to receive the attention of other theater patrons.
Cassatt's popular reputation is based on an extensive series of rigorously drawn, tenderly observed, yet largely unsentimental paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child. The earliest dated work on this subject is the 'Gardner Held by His Mother' although she had painted a few earlier works on the theme. Some of these works depict her own relatives, friends, or clients, although in her later years she generally used professional models in compositions that are often reminiscent of Italian Renaissance depictions of the 'Madonna and Child'. After 1900, she concentrated almost exclusively on mother-and-child subjects.
In 1891, she exhibited a series of highly original colored drypoint and aquatint prints, including 'Woman Bathing' and 'The Coiffure', inspired by the Japanese masters shown in Paris the year before. Cassatt was attracted to the simplicity and clarity of Japanese design, and the skillful use of blocks of color. In her interpretation, she used primarily light, delicate pastel colors and avoided black (a "forbidden" color among the Impressionists). A. Breeskin, of the Smithsonian Institution, notes that these colored prints, "now stand as her most original contribution... adding a new chapter to the history of graphic arts...technically, as color prints, they have never been surpassed".
Although Cassatt depicted few nudes during her long career, 'Woman Bathing' demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity in this genre. The sensuous curve of the woman's back, drawn in very simple lines, highlights the artist's impeccable draftsmanship. Cassatt often credited the print medium for refining her drawing skills; drawing on a plate requires strict control as the surface mercilessly retains every mark.
The Coiffure is one of two nude studies in Cassatt's color series. Although she did not often represent the nude, Cassatt's simple handling of line and form confirms her skill in drawing the human figure. The straight lines of the mirror and wall and the chair's vertical stripes contrast with the graceful curves of the woman's body. The rose and peach color scheme enhances her sinuous beauty by highlighting her delicate skin tone. Cassatt also emphasizes the nape of the woman's neck, perhaps in reference to a traditional Japanese sign of beauty.
Cassatt used the theme of 'The Coiffure' in a number of her other works, for example, her painting, 'Girl Arranging Her Hair', portrays a red-haired model who resembles this one in The Coiffure.
The 1890's were Cassatt's busiest and most creative time. She had matured considerably and became more diplomatic and less blunt in her opinions. She also became a role model for young American artists who sought her advice. Among them was Lucy A. Bacon, whom Cassatt introduced to Camille Pissarro. Though the Impressionist group disbanded, Cassatt still had contact with some of the members, including Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro. As the new century arrived, she served as an advisor to several major art collectors and stipulated that they eventually donate their purchases to American art museums. In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Legion d'honneur in 1904. Although instrumental in advising American collectors, recognition of her art came more slowly in the United States. Even among her family members back in America, she received little recognition and was totally overshadowed by her famous brother.
Mary Cassatt's brother, Alexander Cassatt, (president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1899 until his death) died in 1906. She was shaken, as they had been close, but she continued to be very productive in the years leading up to 1910. An increasing sentimentality is apparent in her work of the 1900's; her work was popular with the public and the critics, but she was no longer breaking new ground, and her Impressionist colleagues who once provided stimulation and criticism were dying off. She was hostile to such new developments in art as post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.
A trip to Egypt in 1910 impressed Cassatt with the beauty of its ancient art, but was followed by a crisis of creativity; not only had the trip exhausted her, but she declared herself "crushed by the strength of this Art", saying, "I fought against it but it conquered, it is surely the greatest Art the past has left us ... how are my feeble hands to ever paint the effect on me." Diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia, and cataracts in 1911, she did not slow down, but after 1914 she was forced to stop painting as she became almost blind. Nonetheless, she took up the cause of women's suffrage, and in 1915, she showed eighteen works in an exhibition supporting the movement.
She died on June 14, 1926 at Chateau de Beaufresne, near Paris, and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Theribus, France. Her paintings have sold for as much as $2.9 million.
The women in 'Afternoon Tea Party' do not seem entirely engaged with one another. While the hostess bends forward expectantly to offer her guest a teacake, the visitor seems to accept only reluctantly. Her arms remain close to her body, and her eyes look down at the plate rather than at the open face of her hostess. The fact that she still wears both her coat and hat suggests that she will not stay long. Perhaps this represents a duty visit rather than a friendly chat over tea.
If we come back now to the seeming confidence of Cassatt in 'At the Opera' we have to ask, was she truly capable of living as the isolated, independent New Woman? A reassessment of the pose of the subject suggests isolation and discomfort, belying the facade of confident self-reliance. It does not show the artist most at ease with her subject matter. This is Cassatt's attempt to break out from the influence of Degas and Renoir and carve her own niche at the opera by portraying an independent, masculine woman. And while it seems to be empowering that the subject ignore the man in the background's prying eyes, according to Broude, it is more likely that the object of his gaze is in fact the daringly dressed woman who appears to the right of the main subject's hat. Indeed, the lack of comfort in the woman's posture reflects Cassatt's own uncertainty in the direction in her life, as the preparatory sketch as well as the final product emphasizes a hunched over, strained back. The elbow awkwardly rests on the banister, while her hand is not quite relaxed in holding the fan in her lap. These tensions give the woman a sense of unease suggesting that in the end, she is not satisfied in her role as a New Woman, and neither was Cassatt. Her words from late in life are most telling. By 1917, when strides had been made in women's rights, Cassatt can only reflect that, "In looking back over my life, how elated I would have been if in my youth I had been told I would have the place in the world of Art I have acquired, and now at the end of life how little it seems, what difference does it all make?" Her youthful desire for complete independence ultimately did not satisfy Cassatt who became dependent on her sister. After Lydia's death, she had to content herself with the youth, flirtation, and romance she imbued in her girls of the opera.
The composition of Cassatt's work reveals its modernity. Calligraphic dashes of green in the right background suggest wallpaper, while the wash of rich yellow at the left evokes sunlight pouring over the artist's shoulders and casting her face into shadow. Bold strokes that emphasize color, mood, and motion celebrate the artist's touch. Although Cassatt does not depict her hands, she shows evidence of their rapid work.
Cassatt's interest in structure and strong sense of patterning comes through clearly in this painting. Her careful brushstrokes follow the contours of the girls' arms, legs, and heads, creating the solid areas of color typical of her work after 1883. To keep the center of attention on the little girls, Cassatt treated the seascape background more loosely; the boats on the ocean melt into a haze of natural light. She emphasized surface pattern by repeating the accents of dark dresses under crisp white pinafores.
Many of Cassatt's late works signal her declining artistic skills (she stopped painting in 1914 because of failing eyesight). Yet 'Denise at Her Dressing Table' shows her to have been in command of composition and the handling of paint as late as 1908-09. The model's head and face are especially appealing, and there are ravishing chromatic passages, notably in the soft pink-lavender dressing gown. The unfinished upper right corner reveals the gray ground and Cassatt's rapid brushwork.
This pastel is one in a series of portraits of children who lived in the French village where Cassatt spent her summers.
Cassatt's ten color prints displayed technical innovation and were admired by her contemporaries for their elegant design and delicate use of color. Unlike the Japanese woodblock prints that inspired their creation, Cassatt's were made using multiple copper plates. 'In the Omnibus' combined impressions from three plates-one for the drypoint outline and some aquatint colors and two for the other areas of color. Cassatt mixed colors by hand and painted them onto the plate before printing. Perfect registration of the separate plates was essential, and Cassatt was assisted in this arduous task by a young, skilled professional, M. Leroy, whom she acknowledged in the pencil inscription on each signed impression.
She never excluded herself from the cool criticism to which she subjected the work of others. In this she was quite similar to her friend and mentor among the Impressionists, Edgar Degas. She shared with Degas an enthusiasm for the Japanese colored woodcut, which she got to know with him especially at the exhibition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890, and which inspired her to create a sequence of ten color etchings.
The work of Degas and the Japanese woodcut are also decisive influences on the pastel picture 'Mother and Child', done in 1893. The very choice of the pastel as a medium points to Degas, as does her free treatment of the paint, which leaves disclosed the sketchy brushwork. Also the blurred profile of the mother with its summary simplification is close to Degas' manner. On the other hand, the clearly distinguished planes, which are alien to the Impressionism of the 70's - and Mary Cassatt's colleague Berthe Morisot is a good example of this - it presupposes a knowledge of the Japanese woodcut.
The artist painted the same model with her child on numerous occasions.
Although unpretentious in its literal details, the scene nonetheless achieves an aura of elemental dignity. In a gesture of unaffected tenderness, a plain-featured woman wearing a simple cotton print dress embraces her sleepy toddler, a blond robust youngster of indeterminate sex dressed in a simple white cotton shirt, and nestles the child firmly on her lap. The two figures are presented close-up, their contours filling the picture frame. Behind them the artist has rendered the barest of interior detail in vigorous, sketchy brushwork: cropped views of a straight back chair, a small cloth-draped wash stand holding an undecorated ewer and basin, and in the upper right-hand corner, the edge of a wood-shuttered window.
Cassatt's choice of subjects and setting evoked for her upper middleclass audience a picture of the contemporary and the commonplace. The mother's appearance suggested that of a country woman or domestic servant. She and her nondescript furnishings, as well as the studied casualness of impressionist brushwork removed the scene far from the sacred, picturesque, or refined realms familiar to concurrent Salon conceptions of motherhood.
Cassatt also kept away from conventional sentimentality by imposing a solemnity of rhythm and stable unity upon the moment-to-moment sensations of touching, holding, and embracing. Conscious and unconscious caresses proceed in a litany of check against nodding head, small hand grasping mother's chin, small relaxed hand and arm resting atop mother's large anchoring hand, with the latter in its turn set atop her second hand as it muscularly grasps the baby's thigh. The two bodies lean into one another forming an easy yet firm dovetail that functions compositionally and symbolically as an indissoluble unit.
Alongside Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond, Cassatt was one of the few female artists associated with Impressionism. Although she began her artistic training in her home country most of her career developed in France, where she settled in 1865. In 1877 she met Degas, who invited her to join the group of painters that had organized the first Impressionist exhibition three years before. Cassatt took part in four of the eight group exhibitions to great acclaim and became very active in the field of engraving, strongly influenced by Japanese prints. Her portraits, domestic scenes, theatre interiors and maternities, whose models came from her immediate personal and family circles, offer a peaceful vision of the everyday activities of women from her own social class, who she depicted arriving at the theatre and the opera, welcoming friends at home or reading in comfortable interiors.
Most of Cassatt's pastels, like this one, have retained their original brilliance, while her papers, which were colored with unstable dyes, have faded.
Painted several years before Cassatt espoused Impressionism, this portrait shows the influence of Italian Baroque painting, especially in its golden light, classical drapery, and, above all, in the figure's monumental proportions. 'Portrait of a Woman' is one of several paintings the artist made of monumental, costumed women during her studies in Parma. Its sense of three- dimensionality differs from Cassatt's later work, in which space is flattened. Throughout her artistic career, Cassatt frequently used women and children as subject matter and depicted them with an unusual degree of understanding and sympathy. Like Edgar Degas, Cassatt was more interested in the everyday subject matter and gesture espoused by the Impressionists than she was concerned with theories about light and brushwork technique. She had a remarkable gift for suggesting emotional connections or states; in this painting, the woman's pensive expression has a poignancy that reveals that this talent developed early.
'The Bath' was Cassatt's first effort in the series, and the only one, according to her, in which she truly tried to imitate Japanese design. She produced seventeen different states for 'The Bath', more than for any other print in the series. The subject, a mother and child, is a favorite of Cassatt's, and in the series as a whole, she opens a window on women's private lives in the nineteenth century.
After 1893, Cassatt began to spend many summers on the Mediterranean coast at Antibes. Under its intense sun, she began to experiment with harder, more decorative color. Here, citron and blue carve strong arcs that divide the picture into assertive, almost abstract, shapes. This picture, with its bold geometry and decorative patterning of the surface, positions Mary Cassatt with such post-impressionist painters as Gauguin and Van Gogh.
This painting, one of her most ambitious, was the centerpiece of Cassatt's first solo exhibition in the United States, in 1895. Her contacts with wealthy friends in the United States did much to bring avant-garde French painting into this country.
'The Fitting' is part of a series of ten prints that Cassatt created in 1891; together, they form an incisive document of everyday work. In this particular print, Cassatt explores the relationship between women of different social classes. The seamstress crouches over her stitching, her back to the viewer. Neither her face nor her hands are visible; she is essentially anonymous. By contrast, the mirror offers a double view of the young woman being fitted. Both her features and the nape of her neck solicit the viewer's attention. While the fabric of the young woman's dress is elaborately sewn and matched, the seamstress wears only a simple brown stripe. Both women are solemn, immersed in serious work.
Like her mentor Edgar Degas, Cassatt worked well in pastel, a medium that utilized her drawing skills and refined sense of texture.
'Young Women Picking Fruit', which may be connected to the mural commission, shows two women, one reaching to pick a piece of fruit, the other sitting meditatively, holding a pear in her lap. According to the artist, the pear tree represents the tree of knowledge; and in plucking its fruit, these modern women express their desire for equality and intellectual recognition.
Source: Art Renewal Center
Source: Mary Cassatt Online
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