When one thinks of great art, French painting and anything from the Italian Renaissance period comes readily to mind.

If one is inclined toward van Gogh – impressionist painting as well as expressionism, works by the likes of Paul Klee or Edvard Munch easily spring forth.

Does one dare throw The Boating Party in the ‘great art’ mix? What about Mother and Child or In The Box?

These and other great artworks by the American painter in Paris are often overlooked in favour of other, more renown tableaux. Mostly, the name Cassatt draws... at best puzzled stares, at worse, blank looks.

The sad part is that that is the treatment Marie Cassatt suffered for just about her entire artistic career.

Today, we put an end to that by understanding who that American woman with the French-sounding name was. Why was she so set on painting? Why couldn’t she see herself marrying, settling down and raising children, as was expected of her?

We look at the tender scenes she painted that belied her struggle for acceptance as an artist of merit. We uncover just how much she was willing to put on the line in the name of art and, in the end, how she was undone by a certain magnificent art installation. Learn about painting classes online here.

Superprof now presents Mary Cassatt.

Young Mary: Getting a Feel for Art

Reine Lefebre and daughter by the window
Mary often asked her neighbours in France to pose for her By Mary Cassatt via Wikipedia

Mary was the second-born in a large, upper-class family living on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. When she entered the world on May 1844, her father was a successful stockbroker and land speculator.

The family had a rather elevated pedigree; Dad was a descendant of the original Dutch settlers in Manhattan. Mum too came from a privileged background; she was well-read, with a taste for refinement.

It was her mother who introduced her to art.

She believed that proper education involved exposure to the wider world. Thus, she took her brood to the capitals of Europe: Berlin, Paris, London and Rome. Little Mary drank it all in, even learning to speak German and French.

She also had her first art lessons – drawing and music, while in Europe.

Before Mary was of school age, the family moved east, ultimately settling in Philadelphia, where she attended school.

Upon completion of her compulsory education, Mary and her father endured a lot of friction.

Mary wanted to study art and her father could see no point in it. Her mother may have interceded on her behalf; at age 15, she was enroled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Her mother and certainly her father must have had reservations about their teen-aged daughter being exposed to feminist ideas and other vagaries that may corrupt her; they especially feared predatory males.

Their fears were for nought. Although the student body was overwhelmingly male, those students nevertheless believed that women and men could create art equally well and should enjoy the same freedom to do so.

Being exposed to such liberalism at such a tender age shaped Mary’s worldview. For her entire life, she and all of her classmates remained advocates of equal rights.

While the temperament suited Mary well, she grew ever more frustrated with two aspects of her art studies:

1. About 20% of the student body was female but, unlike her, they were only learning how to paint as a social skill; they did not have any intention of pursuing a career in art.

2. Because she was most serious about her art, she was subjected to patronising attitudes from both her classmates and instructors.

That last was most injurious and, added to her frustration with the slow pace of the instruction and gender-based restrictions such as being forbidden to work with male models, Mary soon found she had no choice but to set off on her own.

By contrast, Artemisia Gentileschi had no such credibility problems!

The Life of an Artist in Paris

As there would be no certificate or degree for all of the academic art she created, Mary again tussled with her family, finally wrangling permission to establish herself in Europe, to learn how to paint from the masters.

So, she set off, at the age of 22, with a rotation of chaperones keeping her company.

However progressive Mary thought the Paris art scene would be, she must have been sorely disappointed to learn that females were barred from the School of Fine Arts. Or maybe she was angry!

Undeterred, she petitioned for private lessons with the art teachers. Finally, Jean-Leon Jerome, a painter and sculptor in his own right, agreed to take her on.

He might have been surprised at her dedication to learning; not only did she attend every session without fail but, when not in the studio, she was haunting the Louvre, copying the original paintings hanging there.

She may have been dismayed at the number of female artists in that art museum, all busily sketching, as she was. She soon discovered that it was quite common for a female artist to sell their sketches to tourists because of the many roadblocks to their being an artist.

One such block for women artists in Paris must have been that they were denied entry to the cafés where all of the great (male) painters tarried.

Nevertheless, Marie met and built ties with some of the greatest names in western art: Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir and, most importantly, Edgar Degas. With him, she enjoyed a lifelong artistic partnership.

Do you know who Frida Kahlo’s mentor was?

And then, war broke out.

Mary painted many social scenes
Her early impressionist tableaux showed social scenes such as theater and carnivals Source: Wikipedia

On the Quest for Acceptance

Mary returned to her parents’ home just before the Franco-Prussian war broke out, in 1871.

Although one of her paintings, A Mandoline Player had been shown at the Paris Salon, she still encountered rampant bias against her gender – not her work.

Even after her measure of success, her father hated that his daughter insisted on being an artist so much that, while he was happy to provide her with necessities, he refused her any funds to buy art supplies.

His attitude made her sojourn with her family so untenable that, when she was commissioned to paint two tableaux in Italy, she fairly jumped at the chance. With the money fronted to her by the archbishop of Pittsburgh, she and Emily Sartain, another American artist, sailed off to Parma.

While she was there, the Parmesan art community was taking notice of her and her work garnered favourable reviews. Still, once that initial commission was finished, no more work came her way.

She and Emily travelled through Spain, where she painted several oil-on-canvas works of Spanish subjects. They made their way back to Paris in 1874, where Mary opened a studio.

Her productivity hit new highs even as she was spiralling ever downward.

Female painters continued to be regarded with derision in Paris. Unless they had a male sponsor, it was standard for a female artist’s work to be rejected by the Salon body which, in turn, lead to heavy criticism in the press.

Mary grew argumentative and cynical, eventually driving even her friend Emily away. In a quandary over which direction to take her art, she appealed to her friend Degas, who introduced her to the renegade band of painters calling themselves impressionists.

By contrast, Helen Frankenthaler did not have it quite so hard to find acceptance!

Mary Cassatt, Impressionist

Among the other rejected artists of the Paris scene, Mary finally found acceptance.

From them, she learned to lighten her tones and how to incorporate pastels into her oils and gouache. She took up plein-air painting (painting outdoors) and her subjects became at once avant-garde and gentler, more tranquil... more socially acceptable.

Impressionism was indeed her niche but, just as she edged cautiously toward commercial success, her mother and father moved to Paris. Along with her sister Lydia, the four shared one large apartment.

Imagine how Mary must have felt. She was middle-aged, still struggling for success in a male-dominated world, and her father averred the costs of her ‘profession’ must lie solely on her.

Glad as she was for the companionship her family brought, she feared the derision her father doled out. She set out to work harder than ever.

Three of the best works from that time were:

  • Portrait of the Artist, a self-portrait
  • Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
  • Reading Le Figaro – a portrait of her mother

The Impressionist Salon was gaining traction with Paris art circles; indeed it received almost as much press as did the formal Salon. Through that press, derisive though it was at times, Mary finally started earning the recognition she deserved.

Also learn about Georgia O’Keeffe, another great American painter...

Mary Cassatt painted many maternal scenes
In her later years as an artist, Mary depicted mainly maternal scenes Source: Mary Cassatt.org via Wikipedia

Mary to the End

Mary had decided, early in her career as an artist, that she would never marry. Not only was marriage incompatible with the life of an artist but she felt she simply did not have the temperament for it.

Indeed, Mary could be ill-tempered, self-centred and narcissistic. Perhaps those traits are a job requirement for artists.

Still, she painted scenes of motherhood with such tenderness and, one might think, so much longing that some say she enjoyed motherhood through her depictions.

Still, if she missed being a mother or even being married, she gave no outward signs of it; she continued to travel and paint well into old age.

At 74, on a journey through Egypt and, upon seeing the ancient works on display in their museum of art, she became so overwhelmed by their beauty and magnitude that her creativity was stifled, at least for a time.

Finally, at 80 years old, she gave up painting – but only because she could no longer see and it pained her greatly to hold a brush. She lived another 12 years, tortured by the fact that she could not see her beautiful world, much less paint it.

Mary Cassatt is but one of many famous female painters who gave up everything for art, making our world more beautiful in the process.

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