Mary Cassatt (1845-1926)
An American woman in Paris
Was Mary Cassatt an Impressionist?
Mary Cassatt is in the top-10 of most known Impressionists. In books on Impressionism you will find ampel information about her and several pictures. But was Cassatt really an Impressionist? She had no part in the beginnings of the impressionist art-movement, though there were some early contacts. Only 1879 onwards she joins the ‘impressionist’ expositions, which she, overestimating her own role, calls the first exposition of the group. In total she would only join 4 of the 8 expositions and only in the last one she had an active role. 1877 onwards she had close contacts with Degas. Her other contacts with Pissarro, Félix Bracquemond and Morisot seem to be limited (though some sources claim otherwise). Later on she still would have some contacts with Renoir and Monet, but she also scornfully criticised their works. All this doesn’t make her a key figure within the impressionist movement. But still she was a key figure in introducing Impressionism in the USA.
Until 1877/8 her palette contained a lot of blacks, browns, greys and her portraits have dark backgrounds. Which contradict an impressionist painting style. After that her palette would brighten up, also using small brushstrokes and producing some beautiful impressionist works. She already had begun to work straight on the canvas and to render spontaneous and fleeting moods. But in her outdoor paintings (mostly in gardens) the rendering of the effect of sunlight is limited, surely when you compare her works with those of Marie Bracquemond. This, her rare landscapes and the on-sided rendering of the theme mother and child make Cassatt more an Intimist, than an Impressionist.
Mary Cassatt at the Salon:
Mary Cassatt debuted at the Salon of 1868. She would exhibit again in 1870 / 72 / 73 / 74 / 75 /76. She was (partly) rejected in 1869 / 75 / 77. First she exhibited as Mary Stevenson. (See account and her submitted works.) Her paintings were quite traditional and she even darkened her palette to get accepted. But after her last rejection she gladly accepted the invitation of Degas to join the independent ‘impressionist’ expositions (R44,p14). Later in 1905 she would utter her critic about the Salon in this way: ‘I think the jury system may lead… to a high average, but in art what we want is the certainty that the one spark of original genius shall not be extinguished, that is better than average excellence, that is what will survive… (R44,p12). She promoted in 1904 to stick to the independent principles of no jury, no medals, no awards, which were a protest against official exhibitions (R2,p264;R44,p38).
Cassatt joined the ‘impressionist’ expositions in 1879 + 80 + 81 + 86:
At the 4th ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1879 Cassatt showed 11+1hc=12 works.
At the 5th ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1880 Cassatt showed 18 works.
At the 6th ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1881 Cassatt showed 11 works. Henry Trianon (1881/04/24) reviewed ‘The truthfulness of the gesture and typical individuality are the two master qualities of Miss Cassatt.’ (R90I,p367).
In 1882 Cassatt followed Degas in boycotting the 7th ‘impressionist’ exposition (R44,p25;R3,p602/3).
At the 8th ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1886 Cassatt showed 7 works. Cassatt had an active role in organizing and financing the exposition (together with Degas and Morisot) (R44,p140+26). Labruyère (1886/05/28) reviewed ‘Miss Mary Cassatt’s drawing is very personal and her colour reveals a true painter’s nature. A little too much green, perhaps, but so much elegance and simplicity in the drawing, so much vibration in the tones! ‘ (R90I,p460).
Cassatt overestimated her own role within the ‘impressionist’ movement, claiming in 1904 that she belonged to the founders of the Independent exhibition and that the first exposition was held in 1879, the year she first joined (R2,p264;R90I,p254;R44,p38).
See link for an account.
Mary Cassatt as an artist:
The richness of her family made that Mary Cassatt had no financial worries. But still she had to pay her own studio through sales (R44,p12) and also other art supplies (iR3).
Cassatt frequently painted women, from the upper class, enjoying their leisure, mothers caring for their children and children. Mostly she represented members of her family in their intimate environment. (R86,p38;R44;iR11;iR92). Though Effeny emphasizes several times that Cassatt avoided sentimentality (R44,p25), I consider several works of her made 1891 onwards of the intimate bonds between mothers and children quite sentimental. This one-sides theme of mothers and children became dominant, maybe stimulated by Durand-Ruel (R44,p31). It were the social codes for women that limited her to private boundaries for the choose of her subjects (R44,p20). She considered figure painting to be the highest form of art (R44,p11). In her figure painting she renders the personality of the model (R44,p16+24). She often would render a spontaneous and fleeting mood (R44,p12+16). She only occasionally painted outdoors (R86,p39;R3,p605). Not the light effects, but the structures of the brushstrokes and the interrelation of light and dark tones are important for Cassatt (R3,p605).
1865 onwards Cassatt copied masterpieces in the Louvre and later on also during her journeys in Italy, Spain, Belgium and Holland (R44,p7-11). Around 1867 her sympathy for modern subjects grew, also painting in the surroundings of Fontainebleau (R44,p7). In 1868 she made her debut at the Salon and she would regularly exhibit there until 1877, painting in a more traditional manner (iR1;iR3). Around 1872 Cassatt darkened her palette, using strong tonal contrasts (R44,p11). Around 1873 she worked straight on to the canvas without making careful compositional drawings, thus leaving the academic standards of preparation and finish (R44,p11). In 1873 she makes a portrait of Sisley’s wife and adds a personal inscription. The next year she probably met Monet and Renoir and was filled with enthusiasm after seeing some pastels made by Degas: ‘It changed my life.’ (R44,p11/2). But it would take onto 1877 after meeting Degas, that Cassatt got involved in the impressionist movement. She shared their resentment against the official exhibition system of the Salon (R44,p12+14+38). Subsequently her palette would brighten up considerably, with a highpoint in the summer of 1880 (R44,p24). From 1877-80 she would work closely with Degas (R44,p16) and in 1879-90 also with Pissarro and Félix Bracquemond (R44,p20-2). Except for the summer of 1890, she didn’t work close with Morisot whom she met in 1878 (R44,p28-31+20). Other sources claim Cassatt was close to Pissarro and Morisot (iR24;iR3). Through her contacts with the Havemeyer family and Durand Ruel, she had an important role in introducing Impressionism in the USA (R44,p13+26+36).Around 1886 she abandons the rich colouring and lays more emphasize on compositional elements (R44,p25). After 1901 she would use warm-toned paint in long, sensuous brushstrokes (R44,p39). After renting a villa in the south of France she had more contact with Renoir. She disliked his wife and criticized his later work: ‘He is doing the most awful pictures or rather studies of enormously fat women with very small heads.’ Monet’s waterlilies she bitterly described as ‘glorified wallpaper’ (R44,p41). She admired Manet, Courbet and Degas (R86,p38), but she didn’t appreciate the works of younger painters like Signac and Matisse (R44,p36/7).
Engraving was an important form of art that Mary Cassatt applied. In 1879 she joined the project ‘Le jour et la nuit’ with Degas, Félix Bracquemond and Pissarro (R44,p20;iR3). The project failed, but she exhibited several works at the 5th ‘impressionist’ exposition (R2,p311). In 1889 + 90 she exhibited with the ‘Société des peintres-graveurs français’, organized by Félix Bracquemond. She experimented with dry-points and aquatints and made ‘sets of ten’. She printed several trial states of each print, varying the colour combinations, adjusting the dry-point outlines. Cassatt was inspired by the exhibition of Japanese art in May 1890 and Japonism in general. In the summer of 1890 she closely worked with Morisot and they produced similar sketches. (R44,p28-31).
Mary Stevenson Cassatt, a short biography:
- 1844/05/22: Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born in Allegheny City (then nearby, now: part of the north side of Pittsburgh) in Pennsylvania, USA (R44,p140+5;R86,p36;iR3). Stevenson sometimes is rendered as Stephenson (iR24). Sometimes her day of birth is rendered as 1844/05/25 or 1843/05/24 (iR24). The family name was first rendered as Cassat and in older times as Cossart (iR3).
- Her father was a banker, stockbroker, land speculator and later a mayor. the family belonged to the upper-middle-class (R44,p140;R86,p36;iR3).
- 1860-2 or 61-5: takes drawing and painting lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (R86,p36;R44,p140+6;R3). Effeny writes this was in 1860-2, Jennings and Walther 1861-5.
- 1861-65: American Civil War (R3,p593).
- 1865-6: art lessons from Charles Chaplin and Jean Léon Gérôme and Charles Bellay in Paris + copying masterpieces in the Louvre; being a woman she was denied joining the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (R44,p140+7;R86,p36;R3;iR24;iR3).
- 1867-70: art lessons from Thomas Couture, Paul Soyer + Edouard Frère; also in the Fontainebleau forest; her sympathy for modern subjects grows (R44,p140+7;R3).
- 1869-70: travels through France and Italy (R44,p140+8).
- 1870-1871/12: Back in the USA because of the Franco-Prussian war (R44,p140+8).
- 1871/10: paintings of Cassatt were destroyed in a big fire in Chicago (R44,p8;iR3).
- 1872-4: travels through Italy, Spain, Belgium and Holland (R44,p140+10-2).
- 1874: meets Louisine Elder, the later Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer. Until 1923/4 she would be Cassatt’s lifelong confidante and supporter. On her part Cassatt became an adviser of wealthy Americans in collecting European art (R44,p140+13+36;R3).
- 1874: Probably meets Monet, Renoir and Sisley; paints Sisley’s wife (probably in 1873) (R44,p11).
- 1874: Is inspired by pastels of Degas (R44,p12)
- 1875: settles at 19, Rue Laval, Paris, where she also had her studio. Effeny suggests Cassatt did so after the summer, but this address was already given for the Salon exhibition in April. (R44,p140+14;iR1;iR3).
- 1877: meets Degas and gladly excepts his invitation to join with the Impressionists. The next 3 years she would work close with him. (R44,p140+14-7;R86,p36;R3).
- 1877: late that year her parents and her sister Lydia settle permanently in Paris at 13, Avenue Trudaine. Lydia was the oldest daughter and would become an important model for Mary (R44,p140+16;iR3).
- 1879-94: exhibits with an American anti-establishment group, the ‘Society of American Artists’ in New York (R44,p19). Her works were little noticed (R86,p39).
- 1880: visit of her brother Alexander, his wife Lois and their 4 children; rents a house in Marly-le-Roi (R44,p140+22/3).
- 1881: Durand-Ruel starts to represent her (R44,p140;R2,p349).
- 1882: Cassatt financially supports Durand-Ruel and introduces him to wealthy American friends (R44,p26;R86,p39).
- 1882/11/07: her sister Lydia dies, due to a suffering of her kidneys; Mary is unable to work for 6 months ans only sporadically for a year thereafter (R44,p25+16).
- 1887: moves to Rue Marignan (R44,p140+36).
- 1890: starts experimenting with colour printmaking techniques (R44,p140).
- 1891: first solo exhibition at Durand-Ruel (R44,p141;R86,p39;R3).
- 1893: solo exhibition at Durand-Ruel with 98 works (R44,p141;R3).
- 1894: buys Château de Beaufresne at Mesnil-Théribus, 50km from Paris. She received many American art students, but never had pupils. (R44,p141+36+39).
- 1895: solo exhibition in at Durand-Ruel New York (R44,p141;R3). Jennings mentions there was one in 1903 (R86,p39)
- 1898/9: visit to the USA (R44,p141;R86,p39;R3).
- 1904/12: received the title Chevalier du Légion d’Honneur (R44,p141+39;R3).
- 1908-9: last visit to the USA (R44,p141;R3). Jennings mentions her last visit was in 1899 (R86,p39).
- 1913: first biography by Achille Segard: Mary Cassatt, un peintre des enfants et de mères (R44,p141).
- 1914: moves, because of the 1st World War to Grasse in the South of France, staying at the Vila Angeletto; contacts with Renoir (R44,p141+41;R86,p39).
- 1915: ceases her artistic career because of blindness (R44,p141). Jennings writes she stopped in 1914 because of worsening cataracts, which made her virtually blind around 1921 (R86,p39/40).
- 1917: helps after the death of Degas with his legacy; destroys their correspondence (R44,p141+41).
- 1926/06/14: Mary Cassatt dies at her Château de Beaufresne in Mesnil-Théribus (R44,p141;iR24).
My main source is the book of Effeny on Cassatt (1991=R44). Other sources I mainly used are Moffett (R2), Walther (R3,p652/3), Denvir (R5), Jennings (R86), Wikipedia (iR3), RKD (iR24) and the Salon database (iR1). For other general references (=R) see. My main sources (for the pictures) from the internet are the-athenaeum (iR2), Wikimedia (iR6), artsviewer (iR92) and marycassatt.org (iR49). For other references to internet sites (=iR) see. For other additional references (=aR) see below. See links for practical hints and abbreviations and for the subscription of the paintings.
For further reading:
Breeskin, Adelyn Dohme: Mary Cassatt, a catalogue raisonné of the oils, pastels, watercolors, and drawings. Washington, 1970 (referred to as CR).
Breeskin, Adelyn Dohme: A catalogue raisonné of the graphic work of Mary Cassatt (1st ed.). Washington, 1948 (referred to as B48). Revised 2nd edition in 1979.
Additional references (=aR):
- hoocher.com (interesting articles and pictures on Cassatt)
- www.momak.go.jp (link to a retrospective exhibition in 2016 in Kyoto)
- www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com (link to an exhibition in 2018 in Paris)
- youtube.com Fragment from ‘Mary Cassatt: an American impressionist’, a film by Richard Moozer, 1999.