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Mary Cassatt: 1844 - 1926

The most famous female Impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt, was born on 22 May, 1844 in Allegheny, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cassatt family was affluent and cultured: Mary's father was a stockbroker, while her mother, who came from an old established Pennsylvania family, was an accomplished woman who spoke French and read widely, and provided Mary with an excellent example to follow. It is, perhaps, no accident that so many of the women in Mary Cassatt's paintings are engaged in simple, self-contained tasks like reading or sewing, since these were the everyday activities of the Cassatt household.

As a child, Mary traveled widely in Europe, since the family moved from Paris to Heidelberg and Darmstadt in search of a specialist who could help cure her brother Robbie's diseased knee joint, and to find the superior schooling that her brother Alexander needed for his future engineering career. This travel enabled Mary to learn both French and German while she was still young - linguistic skills that were prove immensely useful in later life.

In 1861, when she was sixteen, Mary Cassatt decided to study art seriously and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, apparently against the wishes of her father, who thought it inadvisable that she should extend herself beyond the domestic role for which she was intended. She remained there for four years before moving back to Europe with her mother for a two-year stay before the breakout of the Franco-Prussian war. Henceforth, Mary was to spend most of her life in exile from her native country, reflecting a feeling among some women of her generation that Europe offered an escape from what they saw as the oppressive, patriarchal attitudes of America. She was later to say; "After all, give me France. Women do not have to fight for recognition here if they do serious work. I suppose it is Mrs. Potter Palmer's French blood which gives her organizing powers and determination that women should be someone and not something."

On her return to Europe in 1872, Mary Cassatt went to Parma in Italy where she stayed for several months studying the paintings of the Italian Masters Correggio and Parmagianino, and where she may have also studied graphic art with Carlo Raimondi. It says a great deal about the determination of the young artist that she was prepared to brave a somewhat lonely and isolated existence in order to achieve her aim. It is also significant that she should have felt a need to turn to these two particular painters, as they were both masters of the Madonna-and-child theme, and subject paintings of women and children were to prove so critical to her own work. From Parma, the artist went to Madrid, where she spent some time absorbing the lessons of Velazquez in the Prado, and where she painted the Spanish-influenced Torero and a Young Girl. From Madrid, Mary went to Antwerp where she studied the art of Rubens for a time.

Cassatt knew and befriended Edouard Manet. The two artists lived near each other, had mutual friends, and met from time to time. Although she and Manet did not seem to have the same close relationship that she had with Edgar Degas, Cassatt knew him well, and in 1880 even spent the summer with her family at Marly-le-Roi near Manet's villa. She was also highly influenced by his art, and many of her early works show Manet's broad touch and his strong tonal contrasts. She was responsible for sending many of his paintings to America.

The early years in Paris were a particularly happy time for Mary Cassatt, and this gaiety is reflected in the subject matter she chose for her paintings. She depicted young girls setting in the loge at the opera, women taking tea, knitting and reading. Many of her models were drawn from her close family and friends, such as her mother and her sister Lydia, who had moved to Paris to live with her in 1877. On the whole, Cassatt preferred to paint peasant women who took care of their own children, rather than the more affluent mothers who delegated the task to nannies or nursemaids.

In 1891, Mary Cassatt had her first one-woman show at the gallery of Durand-Ruel. The year after, she was invited by Mrs. Potter Palmer to paint the south tympanum in the Women's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago - a commission she gladly accepted, as she had always been a champion of the feminist cause. Her chosen theme was "Modern Woman", which she illustrated with a three-part composition. In the center she showed "Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge and Science", on the left-hand panel she showed "Young Girls Pursuing Fame", and on the right she depicted the arts of music and dancing. The colors are cheerful, since it was felt that, as the painting was done for a national fete, the mood should be jubilant.

The winter of 1893-1894 found Mary Cassatt in Antibes, recovering from the effort of producing her color prints and the mural for Chicago. It was there she began to paint one of her largest canvases, The Boating Party, which was highly influenced by Manet's painting In the Boat, which she had persuaded the Havemyers to buy for their collection. At the end of the following year, Mary had her second one-woman show at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris, and she bought the Chateau de Beaufresne at Mesnil-Theribus on the Oise, 27 miles from Paris, which was to be her summer home for the rest of her life.

It was not until 1898 that Mary Cassatt visited America for the first time since she had settled in Paris in 1874, in order to see her family and friends. She had delayed her return home until this point partly because she was afraid of sea travel, and also because her ailing parents had needed her to stay with them in Paris. But after her mother died in 1898, there were no close family links to keep her in Europe, and she was free to visit her brothers Gardner and Alexander and their families in Philadelphia and Boston. While in America, Mary Cassatt decided to concentrate on pastels alone, as they were more portable than oils, and therefore more suitable for the journey home. Most of the subjects she painted there were women and children. Her attention was rather diverted from her own work when she returned to Europe; she made an extended visit to Italy with the Havemyers to advise on the purchase of paintings, many of which can now be seen in American museums.

The artist continued to produce a large number of paintings and pastels during the early years of the century, and she managed to preserve her good health and strength until she was in her sixties. However, after a tragic trip to Egypt in 1912 during which her brother Gardner died, she found herself depressed, ill, and unable to work for almost two years. Her eyesight was gradually failing due to inoperable cataracts and because of this, the colors in her pastels became more and more strident and less subtle, although the artist considered them to be her best works. After a last outburst of work in 1913, Mary Cassatt stopped producing pictures almost entirely, and retired to the South of France during the first world war. She lived on in seclusion and virtual blindness, unable to work, until her death in 1926 at the Chateau de Beaufresne.

Additional Exhibits for Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassat: Painter of Mothers & Children Cassatt and Degas: Friends or Lovers?

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