Mary Cassatt - A female artist's profile.
Updated: Jun 13
A quick bio:
Mary Cassatt was born on the 22nd of May 1844 in Pennsylvania. She was considered one of the leading artists in the Impressionist movement towards the end of the 1800s. As a female artist, this is something.
Mary moved to Paris and befriended Edgar Degas, she lived in Paris for the rest of her life. Her increasingly poor eyesight meant that her art career was at an end and she died in 1926.
As many well-off people during that time her upbringing reflected her family’s social standing and her schooling prepared her to be a wife with lessons in home, music and arts. Art was considered a hobby for women and women were not encouraged to take art as a career.
Nevertheless, Mary enrolled in Philadelphia’s Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 16. As many female artists must have found at that time, she found the men and fellow students to be condescending and irritated by her presence. She also disapproved of the slow-paced curriculums and poor course offerings. Mary left the academy and moved to Europe where she took it upon herself to study the works of Old Masters.
Even though her family had strong objections to her moving abroad and living as a bohemian, Mary left at the age of 22. She started studying in the Louvre where she copied and studied masterpieces. Mary continued to study until 1868 when one of her portraits, A Mandolin Player, was selected for the Paris Salon, an annual exhibition run by the French Government. She was one of two American women to first exhibit in the Salon. However, her father’s disapproving presence continued to haunt her and so she submitted the painting under the name of Mary Stevenson.
Upon her return to Philadelphia:
The freedom she experienced during her time abroad was quenched when she returned to the outskirts of Philadelphia. Mary had trouble finding the right supplies that she had previously used in Europe and this added to the fact that her father refused to pay for anything connected to her art career. Tragically, after trying to sell some of her paintings through a dealer in Chicago, her paintings were the victim of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
However, Mary was contacted by the archbishop of Pittsburgh and she was commissioned to paint two works by Correggio. She accepted the mission and left instantaneously for Europe where the pieces were on display in Parma, Italy. With the money she earned she continued her career in Europe. The Paris Salon accepted her paintings in the 1872, 1873 and the 1874 exhibitions which secured her ranking as established artist. A very admirable accomplishment for a female artist.
Mary began to experiment artistically, finding attraction to bright colours and portraits of everyday domestic scenes instead of her fellow artists’ preferences of landscapes and street scenes. Her portraits are honest and capture a snapshot of everyday life for her subjects. Mary continued to experiment and drew inspiration from Japanese printmakers, something that can be admired in her portrait …… . During this time, she moved away from impressionism and stopped identifying herself with art movements.
The last couple of decades of her life were tragic. After a trip to Egypt with her brother, he died of an illness contracted during the journey. Diabetes began to affect Mary’s vision; this took a toll on her mental health. She was extremely sorrowful that her one true passion and love of art was taken away from her with her vision. Mary died in 1926.
A Young Mother Sewing - 1900
Classic of Mary Cassatt’s work, this portrait depicts a young mother sewing whilst a child looks wistfully into the viewer's eyes. The bright colours are typical of her work, something that she was heavily criticised for during her career. The delicate fabrics she has portrayed beautifully in soft blues and white highlights to give the illusion of a lightweight fabric.
In The Box - 1879
Picturing a duo of young ladies in their opera box with beautiful clothes and fans, this painting by Mary is typical of her impressionist work. The position of the two ladies to the right of the picture means we can get a glimpse of the opera boxes on the other side and the curvature of the opera house. In The Box is a very pleasing picture to study, not only do we have the delicate tones of blue and purple coming through the skin of the demur ladies but we can also catch a glimpse into their lives at the opera.
A Mandolin Player - 1872
A Mandolin Player is the first portrait of Mary Cassatt’s to be accepted into the Paris Salon exhibition. The girl’s face shines beautifully from the golden light, picking up the rosy cheeks and highlights in her hair. This is a more posed study of a portrait rather than her captured moments in life.
The Child's Bath - 1893, The Letter - 1891
The Child’s Bath once again captures a domestic scene in a mother’s life and portrays a mother giving her child a bath. The mustard yellow and bright blue of the dress and bathtub shows Mary’s love of bright colours. This print was made by a Japanese block printing method, something that Mary experimented with towards the later year of her career. We can also see this style in many of her other works such as The Letter – 1891 where a young lay is sat at her writing desk in a blue robing sealing an envelope to her letter.
I like Mary Cassatt’s work; I like her early impressionist work, her later Japanese prints, her use of bright colours and the fact that she stuck it to the man and pursued her art career regardless of her fellow male student’s opinions and her father’s objections. That’s something that I imagine didn’t happen very often at that time.
One thing that appeals to me most about Mary’s work is her ability to capture snapshots into life. A lot of her work doesn’t portray a posed sitter, they show a mother doing the tasks of washing her child, sewing, writing letters. There’s a freedom in her work that allows her to strip down the fanciness of previous portrait art and show simplicity with a feminine aspect. It’s gentle , sensitive and doesn’t require too much analysis or thought to decipher her art. The Child’s Bath, do I need to decode why she is wearing a yellow dress and why the mother is bathing the child from a blue tub? No, we can just admire the snapshot into this woman’s life with her child.
As you often see with artists, her style evolves and adapts throughout her career. She goes from following other artists during the impressionism era to experimenting with Japanese printing methods. That to me, is really admirable. To be able to change your style and be confident that what you do will be well received is some mean feat. You do you Mary, you’re a legend.