American Draftsman, Painter, and Printmaker
Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, United States
Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, France
Summary of Mary Cassatt
American-born Mary Cassatt traveled to France for her artistic training and remained there for most of her life and career. There she was recognized by contemporaries like Edgar Degas for her talent, and she became the only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris. Her signature subjects were portraits of women and portrayals of mothers and children caught in everyday moments. In both her style and her insightful evocations of women's inner lives, she was a distinctly modern artist of the late-19th century.
- Cassatt's work combined the light color palette and loose brushwork of Impressionism with compositions influenced by Japanese art as well as by European Old Masters, and she worked in a variety of media throughout her career. This versatility helped to establish her professional success at a time when very few women were regarded as serious artists.
- Cassatt's art typically depicted domestic settings, the world to which she herself (as a respectable woman) was restricted, rather than the more public spaces that her male contemporaries were free to inhabit. Her material was occasionally dismissed as quintessentially "feminine," yet most critics realized that she brought considerable technical skill and psychological insight to her subject matter.
- Through her business acumen and her friendships and professional relationships with artists, dealers, and collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, Cassatt became a key figure in the turn-of-the-century art world and helped to establish the taste for Impressionist art in her native United States.
Biography of Mary Cassatt
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born to a comfortably upper-middle-class family: her father was a successful stockbroker, and her mother belonged to a prosperous banking family. The Cassatts lived in France and Germany from 1851 to 1855, giving the young Mary an early exposure to European arts and culture. She also learned French and German as a child; these language skills would serve her well in her later career abroad. Little else is known about her childhood, but she may have visited the 1855 Paris World's Fair, at which she would have viewed the art of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, among other French masters.
Important Art by Mary Cassatt
In this important work of her mature career, Cassatt chose to portray a young girl alone in a domestic interior. The visible brushwork and the figure's informal pose are hallmarks of Impressionism; the asymmetrical composition, raised viewpoint, shallow space, and abrupt cropping of the scene all indicate the influence of Japanese art. Cassatt also brings her own astute observations to the construction of this image. The girl, who was a child of a friend of Degas, is seated in a sprawling, unselfconscious manner that reminds the viewer of her young age, and the way that she is dwarfed by the adult furniture around her evokes the awkwardness and isolation of certain stages of childhood.
This canvas shows a stylish woman attending a daytime performance at the Comedie-Francaise, a famous theater in Paris. The woman's profile is set off against the red velvet and gilt decoration of the box seats behind her as she raises a pair of opera glasses to her eyes. The black of her dress is echoed in the clothing of other figures in the background, including a man several boxes down who regards her through his own glasses. Cassatt has perceptively grasped the fact that the members of the well-dressed audience are putting on their own performances for one another. The main figure may be watching the stage or observing her fellow theatergoers while she herself becomes the subject of the man's gaze; meanwhile, the viewer, who is placed just beside the woman, takes in the entire scene. When Cassatt exhibited In the Loge in Boston in 1878, one critic praised it by writing that Cassatt's work "surpassed the strength of most men."
Cassatt's older sister, Lydia, was one of the artist's favorite models. In this painting, Lydia is seated in profile, with her gown and her face painted in the same loose, feathery brushstrokes as the background and the armchair that locks her diagonally posed figure into the asymmetrical composition. The typically Impressionist palette of white, rose, light blues, and fresh green evokes a light-hearted mood, yet this is also a serious moment: in showing her subject reading a newspaper, Cassatt alludes to the importance of women's growing literacy in the 19th century, to their increasing involvement in society beyond the home, and to their awareness of current events as they began to fight for voting rights.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Mary Cassatt
- Mary Cassatt: A LifeOur PickBy Nancy Mowll Matthews
- Mary Cassatt: Impressionist PainterBy Lois Harris
- May Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Collection of Ambroise VollardOur PickBy Marc Rosen, Susan Pinsky, Nancy Mowll Matthews, and Sarah Bertalan
- Mary Cassatt: Paintings and PrintsBy Frank Getlein
- Mary Cassatt: Modern WomanBy Judith Barter
- Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern WomenBy Griselda Pollock
- Friendship Was Their MediumBy Karen Rosenberg / The New York Times / May 29, 2014
- Degas and Cassatt: The Untold Story of Their FriendshipOur PickBy Stephanie Strasnick / ARTnews / March 27, 2014
- Transient States: On Mary CassattOur PickBy Barry Schwabsky / The Nation / June 4, 2013
- Fascination with a Medium, and the Lives of WomenBy Martha Schwendener / The New York Times / January 25, 2013
- Storm in the TeacupsOur PickGermaine Greer / The Guardian / January 4, 2006
- Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist