Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 near Pittsburg. When she was still a child she was taken to Europe by her parents. Returning to Philadelphia, she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1861, where she studied for four years. Dissatisfied with drawing from casts, she left in 1866 for Paris, which would be her home for most of the rest of her life. There she studied with Jean-Leon Gerome, copied works by Old Masters – especially Velazquez and Hals – and admired the work of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and especially Edgar Degas (Clement R., Houzé A., Erbolato-Ramsey C., p. 18). It was Degas who invited Cassatt in 1877 to join the painters who became known as the Impressionists. She was the only American actually to be a member of that group.
Cassatt was closest to Degas, both in her friendship and in the style of her work. Like the Impressionists generally, she chose subjects that were casual, informal vignettes of daily life – scenes at the theater or opera, a boating party, a carriage ride through the Bios de Boulogne, or the intimate relationship of a mother and child. The latter became a favored theme: The Bath is a splendid example of her treatment of the subject (Fig.1). Impressionist, too, is the use of bright colors, and the absence of dark shadows. Another influence of great importance is seen here as well. In 1890 Cassatt saw the large exhibition of Japanese prints held at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (Clement R., Houzé A., Erbolato-Ramsey C., p. 26), and the bold patterning seen in The Bath reflects the powerful impact the experience had on her. Here it is seen in the union of diverse patterns in the carpet, the woman’s gown, the wallpaper, and the decorated chest, and even the design on the water pitcher has an Oriental flavor. Cassatt is known to have had a collection of prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and other celebrated Japanese printmakers – she was also a gifted graphic artist. Another typical Cassatt’s work, which drew heavily on the everyday relations between mothers and their children, is Mother and Child (Fig.2). Here Cassatt take Manet’s initial experiments in presenting large areas of undifferentiated color to new heights; now volume is implied almost exclusively through the sensitive handling of line that forms the shapes, such as under a child’s wrist. Even a simple background is articulated almost exclusively through line, but these lines retain a certain unpredictable and organic quality that we have come to associate with Impressionists painting. The end result is an interesting merger of light and mark making with flattening of forms, in a satisfying and sensitive portrayal of domestic life.
Cassatt enjoyed open-air scenes where the natural sunlight flooded the canvas, which became saturated with bright colors, as in The Boating Party (Fig.3), a picture reminiscent of Edouard Manet’s Boating. The man wears dark blue and purple attire, and sits in a yellow-green boat set against the brilliant blue of the water. The woman’s dress is a soft blue, the child’s is pink. This bold patterning of color areas is primarily for decorative effect.
After about 1900, Cassatt was instrumental in the formation of the collections of several wealthy Americans who visited Paris. She induced many such people to include works by Courbet, Manet, Monet, and Degas in their collections. Late in life, she developed cataracts and had to stop painting. She died at her country home outside of Paris.
Cassatt is a good example of the American painter who chose to live the expatriate life abroad and partake of the exciting new influences bursting upon the art world as it made its way towards modernism. Rejection of historic styles, fascination with light and color for their own decorative values, participation in new experiments, the discovery of new aesthetic heroes such as Hiroshige or Hokusai – all of this signal the spirit of change that characterized her time.
Nagle, Geraldine. The Arts, World Themes. McGraw-Hill, 1997
Clement, Russell T., Houzé, Annick, Erbolato-Ramsey, Christiane. The Women Impressionists: A Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000
The Child’s Bath, 1891-2.
Oil on canvas
Art Institute of Chicago
Mother and Child, 1889
Oil on canvas
Cincinnati Art Museum
The Boating Party, 1893-4
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art