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Biographical Sketch of Mary Cassatt

by William H. Gerdts

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born May 22, 1844, the daughter of prosperous financier Robert Simpson Cassatt and his wife Katherine Kelso (née Johnston) Cassatt, in Allegheny City, now incorporated into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cassatts had seven children including Mary, her older sister Lydia, and her brothers Robert, Alexander, and Joseph Gardner (called Gardner). Katherine died on the day of her birth (1835), and George died within a month of his birth (1846). Active in local politics, Robert Cassatt was elected mayor of Allegheny City. Upon retiring in 1848, he moved the family east through Pennsylvania, taking up residence in Philadelphia in 1849. In 1851, the Cassatts made their first trip to Europe seeking medical care for son Robert, who was afflicted with a bone disease and died in 1855 at age 13. The European journey also provided the oldest son, Alexander, the opportunity for engineering studies in Darmstadt, Germany.

On their return from Europe, the family settled again in eastern Pennsylvania where they rented a house in West Chester and later purchased a home in Philadelphia in 1858. Two years later, Mary began her artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, enrolling in the antique drawing class, studying drawing with Christian Schussele and painting with Peter Rothermel. Cassatt remained at the Academy for two years until her family moved to a new country house in Westtown near West Chester. Eventually, the restrictions placed on women’s art education in the art schools of the United States led her to seek further professional training abroad. In 1865, immediately at the conclusion of the Civil War, she traveled to Paris accompanied by her closest art school friend Eliza Haldeman and by her mother, Katherine Cassatt. While women were not admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt copied works in the Musée du Louvre while taking evening classes in October at the studio of the popular figure painter Charles Chaplin; the following month she studied with the celebrated academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Though Cassatt is seldom associated with the rising number of artists’ colonies that developed in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, in April 1867, she and Haldeman ventured to the colony at Écouen, thirty miles north of Paris. There they sought instruction from the popular master Pierre Édouard Frère and from Frère’s disciple Paul Constant Soyer.

Unfortunately for Cassatt, at this moment, her work was turned down for the annual Paris Salon, the prestigious government-sponsored exhibition. By the next year, her growing capability and her varied studies enabled Cassatt to achieve the degree of professionalism sufficient to be accepted in May at the Salon of 1868 with her painting The Mandolin Player (private collection), painted that year. Not content with the private instruction she had received, Cassatt continued to make copies at the Louvre, and at the end of the month she traveled to Villiers-le-Bel, near Écouen, where she remained for almost a year studying with the non-academic master Thomas Couture.

Cassatt and her mother spent much of the first half of 1870 in Rome, then returned to Paris until the Franco-Prussian War brought them back to Pennsylvania. Her native land did not provide inspiration for the young artist, and her situation was exacerbated when two of her paintings (now unidentified) on display in Chicago were lost in the Great Fire of 1871. In December 1871, Cassatt returned to Italy, this time with her friend Emily Sartain, settling in Parma where she had a commission from Bishop Michael Domenec of Pittsburgh to copy two works by Correggio for Pittsburgh’s cathedral. Only one of the works, Cassatt’s copy of Correggio’s Coronation of the Virgin in the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, appears to have been completed. Her work attracted numerous positive accolades in Parma, and she also exhibited a picture in Milan. In October 1872, Cassatt traveled to Spain, first to Madrid, copying works by the Old Masters in the Prado, and then to Seville, painting typical Spanish genre subjects, pictures that suggest the impact of both Velázquez and the modern French masters. These may be considered her earliest distinctive and mature works, subsequently exhibited both in France and in the United States. Cassatt returned for a brief stay in Paris in April 1873. That summer she and her mother traveled to The Hague and then to Belgium where Cassatt copied in Antwerp. In October, Cassatt stopped in Paris to see her mother off to the United States, and then the artist returned to Parma and Rome.

Though absent from Paris in May 1874, Cassatt exhibited a picture at the Salon that year. In June, she returned to Paris, which was to remain the center for her artistic career for the rest of her life. She soon met Louisine Elder, later Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer, who remained her closest friend and for whom she served as an art advisor. In 1875, Cassatt exhibited a Portrait de Mlle E. C. (unlocated) at the Salon, and that summer, she also continued her studies with Thomas Couture and made a brief visit to the United States. In the autumn, Cassatt took a studio on the rue Laval, and her sister Lydia joined her in Paris. In 1877, Lydia, along with the Cassatt parents, took permanent residence in Paris with Mary.

Cassatt became a member of the American artistic expatriate community, producing a number of highly finished portraits while exhibiting during the mid-1870s at the Salon. It was probably in 1875 that she first became aware of the paintings of Edgar Degas who, ultimately becoming her mentor, invited Cassatt to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1877. That year, Cassatt persuaded Louisine Elder to purchase a work by Degas subsequently exhibited in New York in 1878, making it probably the first French Impressionist picture on public view in the United States.

Although Cassatt had increasing difficulty gaining admission to the annual Salon shows, with both of her submissions rejected in 1877, she hesitated to break with the artistic establishment. Fearing a much more restricted audience, she declined Degas’s initial invitation to exhibit with the Impressionist group. More and more, however, she was drawn to the more avant-garde aesthetics of the Impressionist movement, becoming a close friend of Camille Pissarro’s by 1878 and identifying herself as a member of the Impressionist group in a letter written to J. Alden Weir in March 1878. Finally, after one of her works was rejected from the art exhibition of the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle, she joined the Impressionists in their fourth exhibit, which took place in 1879. (The group held eight exhibitions in all between 1874 and 1886.) There, she exhibited twelve works and likely sold at least two. Previously at the Salon, she had shown no more than two works in any one year. With the Impressionists, her paintings met with enthusiasm among the more advanced French critics of the time, though a good deal less so with their American counterpart for the New York Times. At around this time, Cassatt also exhibited a number of her paintings in the United States and in 1878 was awarded a silver medal at the art exhibition organized by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston. In 1879, Cassatt submitted two paintings to the second exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York, a group dedicated primarily to the exhibition of the work of younger Paris- and Munich-trained Americans who had either recently returned home or were still resident abroad. Though her work was well received, her paintings were not shown again with the Society for over a decade, and when they did appear, they were submitted not by the artist but by her family. Her work appeared in the United States only a few times during the 1880s. Cassatt had truly expatriated.

Many of Cassatt’s paintings done at the time of her association with the Impressionists not only involved the main visual characteristics of the movement—more spontaneous brushwork, heightened color, and flattened perspectives—but also portrayed themes related to everyday life, themes favored by these artists. Her subjects included scenes at the theater or opera, though unlike Degas, Cassatt’s interests centered upon the audience, not the performers. Many other of her paintings were concerned with the daily life of women, a subject especially pertinent to her living arrangements with her parents and with her sister, Lydia, who was frequently the subject of Cassatt’s canvases. In 1880, Cassatt also began to investigate the mother and child theme, though this motif only gradually developed into a dominant subject of her canvases and pastels, ultimately leading her earliest biographer Achille Segard to entitle his 1913 book Mary Cassatt: Un peintre des enfants et des mères.

Once involved with Degas and the French Impressionists, Cassatt became as active in the creation of pastels as in oil paintings, depicting similar themes in both mediums. She also became more active in printmaking at this time. Though she had studied the process with Carlo Raimondi in Parma, it was only in 1879 that, under the influence of Degas, she began to create original etchings, again exploring the same themes she had undertaken in painting and pastel. In 1879, she made works specifically for a print journal proposed by Degas, Le jour et la nuit, which was unfortunately abandoned and never went to print.

During the late 1870s and early 1880s, Mary Cassatt reached both professional and personal fulfillment. When dissension broke out in the ranks of the Impressionists, Cassatt and Degas both exhibited in the group’s fifth exhibition held in 1880, though Monet, Sisley, Renoir, and Cézanne refused to participate. In the summer of 1880, the Cassatt family rented a house in Marly-le-Roi, west of Paris, where they were joined by Alexander and his family, and where Mary began to paint more regularly out-of-doors. Cassatt then showed eleven pictures in the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, but she joined Degas in refusing to take part in the seventh exhibition in 1882. At this time, Cassatt also became an important advisor to her brother Alexander as he started to collect Impressionist paintings. Lydia died of Bright’s disease in early November 1882, an enormous loss for Cassatt because Lydia had been her closest companion. Cassatt’s parents remained with her in Paris, and in 1883 some consolation was achieved through further visits from Alexander and his four children, who posed for some of Cassatt’s finest pictures. In 1883, Gardner Cassatt and his wife also visited Paris. Katherine Cassatt’s health deteriorated, and she sought relief in trips to Spain and the south of France. Cassatt gave up her separate studio and acquired a new apartment with an elevator for her mother. In May 1886, Cassatt exhibited six oil paintings and one pastel in the final Impressionist show, which she and Degas also helped to finance.

Gradually, however, by the late 1880s, Cassatt had moved away from the free application of paint and the brilliant colorism of Impressionism toward more tonal compositions based on stronger contrasts of light and dark and more carefully defined forms. Her subjects were increasingly single figures of young girls and women, chosen more for character than for beauty. Her models were often arranged in somewhat contorted positions, brought up close to the picture frame, and sometimes cut off by the frame. These visual strategies indicate Cassatt’s growing interest in the aesthetics of Japanese prints. Cassatt’s pictures of this era were more often figure paintings than portraits, and while she continued to depict friends and members of her family, she often hired models, sometimes friends or relatives of her work staff. These models also posed for the maternal figures in the growing number of mother and child subjects that occupied Cassatt’s brush and her chalks.

Cassatt was increasingly instrumental as an advisor to American collectors in the acquisition of work by the French Impressionists. The beneficiaries of her knowledge included the Havemeyers, her brother Alexander Cassatt, his friend Frank Thomson, and many others. She was involved with the greatest show of French Impressionist paintings ever put on view in the United States, which opened in April 1886 with about 250 Impressionist pictures sent by the French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to the American Art Association in New York. Durand-Ruel had become interested in Cassatt’s painting in 1881, and although he eventually evolved into her principal dealer, no work by Cassatt was initially included in his 1886 New York exhibition. When the exhibition was extended in May and moved to the National Academy of Design, Alexander Cassatt lent two family pictures painted by his sister to be shown among twenty-one works that were added to the exhibit.

In 1889 and 1890, Cassatt exhibited her graphic work at Durand-Ruel’s gallery with the Société des peintres-graveurs français, but in 1891 her prints were excluded on the grounds that she was not a French artist. In response, Durand-Ruel offered Cassatt her first one-artist exhibition in April 1891, which featured two pastels and two oil paintings, all mother and child subjects. Moreover, the exhibition highlighted ten recently completed color prints, still considered her finest and most innovative graphic work. This set of ten color prints was much influenced by her visit to an exhibition of Japanese prints, scrolls, and other work held in April 1890 at the École des Beaux-Arts.

Later in 1891, Cassatt and her family rented the Château de Bachivilliers, forty miles northwest of Paris, as a summerhouse. In late autumn 1891, Cassatt exhibited her series of ten color prints at the prominent New York print gallery of Frederick Keppel and Co. where they were well-received by critics. Sadly, her father, Robert Cassatt, died in December.

In 1892, Cassatt received the most prestigious commission of her career: the painting of a twelve- by fifty-eight-foot mural for the Hall of Honor in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The prominent society leader and collector Bertha Honoré Palmer went to Paris in May 1892 on the advice of the art agent and exhibition organizer Sara Tyson Hallowell to choose two women each to create a large tympanum mural. These two enormous paintings were to be installed high above the walls at the long ends of the Woman’s Building; somewhat smaller murals, also by women, were to adorn the side walls. When American expatriate painter Elizabeth Gardner turned down the commission, Palmer and Hallowell offered the commission to Cassatt. The subject chosen for her mural was Modern Woman. Another American expatriate, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies, painted the companion piece on the theme of Primitive Woman, the pair of pictures (now both lost) designed to explore the theme of the advancement of woman. The building itself was designed by a woman architect, and all the displays on exhibit were created by women. The central image of Cassatt’s tri-partite composition depicted Young Women Picking Fruit, a theme which she also undertook in her easel paintings, pastels, and prints. Orchard scenes were, in fact, a common subject among both French and American Impressionists at this period. Cassatt shipped the work, painted on canvas, to the Exposition in February 1893 but never saw it in Chicago. The mural was not well liked by the critics.

In November 1893, Cassatt’s work was the subject of a second one-artist show at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery, and this time the exhibit included ninety-eight of her oils, pastels, and prints. During these years, Cassatt became more active in promoting the work of the French Impressionists among important American collectors including Harris Whittemore and Alfred Atmore Pope. In 1894, Cassatt and her mother wintered in the south of France at Cap d’Antibes, and in the spring, Cassatt acquired the Château de Beaufresne at Mesnil-Théribus, fifty miles northwest of Paris.

In April 1895, Cassatt enjoyed her first one-artist show in her native land when Durand-Ruel presented her works to a New York audience in the gallery he had inaugurated in 1888, two years after his success at the American Art Association in that city. Cassatt’s exhibition drew good reviews from the critics. From that time on, Cassatt’s art was a known quantity in her native land, with individual works continuing to be exhibited in New York and sent by Durand-Ruel to group exhibitions in other cities as well. The artist’s mother, Katherine Cassatt, died at Mesnil-Théribus in October 1895.

In 1898, Cassatt returned to her native land for the first time in over twenty years, arriving in New York and traveling to stay with her brother Gardner Cassatt in Philadelphia. After visiting with the Havemeyers in New York, she traveled to Boston and to Naugatuck, Connecticut, fulfilling portrait commissions and visiting artist friends and a number of collectors, including the Whittemores, the Popes, and Sarah Choate Sears, one of the leading art collectors in Boston. In the spring, Cassatt returned to France where Beaufresne remained her primary residence. She occasionally visited Paris.

Cassatt was now an established painter, well recognized on both sides of the Atlantic, and associated with the French artistic establishment rather than with the American expatriates and art colonists. Though she accepted no pupils, Cassatt allowed numerous young American artists to call upon her. Among the collectors she assisted, Louisine and Henry O. Havemeyer remained especially close, her advice not limited to the work of her colleagues among the French Impressionists. Early in 1901, she joined the Havemeyers in hunting for Old Masters in Italy and Spain, acquiring Renaissance masterworks in the former and a work by El Greco in the latter.

In November 1903, Durand-Ruel held another exhibition of Cassatt’s work in his New York gallery. In 1904, Cassatt was awarded prizes at the annual exhibitions of both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Art Institute of Chicago. She gradually moved away from the orbit of Durand-Ruel after he excluded her from his February 1905 Impressionist exhibition, held in London. Cassatt continued to travel throughout Europe with the Havemeyers and also with the banker James Stillman, whom she had met in 1906 and who became one of the most important collectors of her paintings. Even in the years after Henry O. Havemeyer’s death in December 1907, Cassatt, Stillman, Louisine Havemeyer, and Louisine’s daughter Electra continued their travels in Europe.

Durand-Ruel held a further show of Cassatt’s paintings and pastels in Paris in November 1908 and another exhibition in June 1914. By then, Cassatt had formed a commercial arrangement with the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard who held a major exhibition of her work, primarily pastels, in March 1908. At some point, a large number of Cassatt pastels were reproduced as counterproofs by Vollard.

In November 1908, Cassatt made her final visit to the United States. She was with Louisine Havemeyer on the first anniversary of Henry Havemeyer’s death; she visited the Popes in Connecticut; and she stayed with her family in Philadelphia, returning to France in January 1909. Stillman, who had settled in Paris in 1909, now became her frequent traveling companion. In 1910, Cassatt joined her brother Gardner and his family on an extensive trip through Vienna, the Balkans, and Constantinople. The family set out in January 1911 to sail down the Nile for two months, but Gardner took ill in February and died in April in Paris. Though she continued to reside in Beaufresne, Cassatt spent several winters in the south of France in the town of Grasse beginning in 1911. At this time, her own health began to fail, and Stillman cared for her in the first two months of 1912. She was able to resume her activity in 1913, working particularly in pastel, but by the end of the year she was suffering from deterioration of her eyesight. The following year, with the outbreak of World War I, Cassatt evacuated to Dinard and then in November removed to Grasse, where she remained for much of the war even though Louisine Havemeyer encouraged her to return to America.

By this time, Cassatt had become involved through Mrs. Havemeyer in the suffrage movement in America. Louisine convinced Cassatt to show her works alongside those of Degas in an exhibition in support of woman suffrage held in New York in April 1915. Twenty of Cassatt’s pictures were included in this show, the Loan Exhibition of Masterpieces by Old and Modern Painters, held at the gallery of M. Knoedler & Co.

Cassatt’s artistic career ceased in 1915 when she abandoned her work. Despite several operations for cataracts, which necessitated her leaving Grasse and staying in Paris, her eyesight continued to fail. She was back in Grasse when the Germans occupied Paris in 1918. Further cataract operations after the end of World War I brought no relief. Cassatt lived at Beaufresne until her death in 1926, though she gave up her villa in Grasse not until 1924. She was increasingly honored in her native land. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia devoted a room to her work in April 1920 in an Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Representative Modern Artists, and an exhibition of her etchings was on view, first in January 1922 at the Grolier Club in New York, and then in September at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Cassatt was not in sympathy with the more modern movements of the twentieth century. Though two of her paintings were included in the International Exhibition of Modern Art—better known as the Armory Show—held in New York in February 1913, Cassatt disparaged the modern movements of Cubism and Fauvism and had no use for either their practitioners such as Henri Matisse or their patrons such as Gertrude and Leo Stein. By the time of her death, at age 83, on June 14, 1926, Mary Cassatt was an Old—if yet a Modern—Master. She is buried in the family plot in Mesnil-Théribus.

Generally recognized as the finest and most significant American woman artist of the nineteenth century, Mary Cassatt is, in actuality, both the pioneer of American Impressionism and an outstanding painter and printmaker of superb invention, transcending issues of gender. Her career and artistry have prompted a bibliography exceeded by few artists of her era. Nancy Mowll Mathews, whose groundbreaking scholarship devoted to the artist includes the biography Mary Cassatt: A Life and the volume of correspondence Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, provides essential sources for understanding Cassatt. The catalogue accompanying Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, an exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998, provides another significant overview of Cassatt’s life and work.

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