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Truly one of the greatest artists of the 19th century. Her relationships with major impressionists laid the groundwork for her incredible output. 

Mary Stevenson Cassatt May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.

She was described by Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot.

Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh. She was born into an upper-middle-class family: her father, Robert Simpson Cassat (later Cassatt), was a successful stockbroker and land speculator, and her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family. Katherine Cassatt, educated and very well read, had a profound influence on her daughter.

Cassatt admired Degas, whose pastels had made a powerful impression on her when she encountered them in an art dealer’s window in 1875. “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art,” she later recalled. “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She accepted Degas’ invitation with enthusiasm, and began preparing paintings for the next Impressionist show, planned for 1878, which (after a postponement because of the World’s Fair) took place on April 10, 1879. She felt comfortable with the Impressionists and joined their cause enthusiastically, declaring: “we are carrying on a despairing fight & need all our forces”. Unable to attend cafes with them without attracting unfavorable attention, she met with them privately and at exhibitions. She now hoped for commercial success selling paintings to the sophisticated Parisians who preferred the avant-garde. Her style had gained a new spontaneity during the intervening two years. Previously a studio-bound artist, she had adopted the practice of carrying a sketchbook with her while out-of-doors or at the theater, and recording the scenes she saw.

The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 was the most successful to date, despite the absence of RenoirSisleyManet and Cézanne, who were attempting once again to gain recognition at the Salon. Through the efforts of Gustave Caillebotte, who organized and underwrote the show, the group made a profit and sold many works, although the criticism continued as harsh as ever. The Revue des Deux Mondeswrote, “M. Degas and Mlle. Cassatt are, nevertheless, the only artists who distinguish themselves… and who offer some attraction and some excuse in the pretentious show of window dressing and infantile daubing”.

Cassatt displayed eleven works, including Lydia in a Loge, Wearing a Pearl Necklace, (Woman in a Loge). Although critics claimed that Cassatt’s colors were too bright and that her portraits were too accurate to be flattering to the subjects, her work was not savaged as was Monet‘s, whose circumstances were the most desperate of all the Impressionists at that time. She used her share of the profits to purchase a work by Degas and one by Monet. She exhibited in the Impressionist Exhibitions that followed in 1880 and 1881, and she remained an active member of the Impressionist circle until 1886. In 1886, Cassatt provided two paintings for the first Impressionist exhibition in the United States, organized by art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Her friend Louisine Elder married Harry Havemeyer in 1883, and with Cassatt as advisor, the couple began collecting the Impressionists on a grand scale. Much of their vast collection is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She also made several portraits of family members during that period, of which Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso (1885) is one of her best regarded. Cassatt’s style then evolved, and she moved away from Impressionism to a simpler, more straightforward approach. She began to exhibit her works in New York galleries as well. After 1886, Cassatt no longer identified herself with any art movement and experimented with a variety of techniques.

As the new century arrived, Cassatt served as an advisor to several major art collectors and stipulated that they eventually donate their purchases to American art museums. In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d’honneur in 1904. Although instrumental in advising American collectors, recognition of her art came more slowly in the United States. Even among her family members back in America, she received little recognition and was totally overshadowed by her famous brother.

Mary Cassatt’s brother, Alexander Cassatt, (president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1899 until his death) died in 1906. She was shaken, as they had been close, but she continued to be very productive in the years leading up to 1910. An increasing sentimentality is apparent in her work of the 1900s; her work was popular with the public and the critics, but she was no longer breaking new ground, and her Impressionist colleagues who once provided stimulation and criticism were dying off. She was hostile to such new developments in art as post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

A trip to Egypt in 1910 impressed Cassatt with the beauty of its ancient art, but was followed by a crisis of creativity; not only had the trip exhausted her, but she declared herself “crushed by the strength of this Art”, saying, “I fought against it but it conquered, it is surely the greatest Art the past has left us … how are my feeble hands to ever paint the effect on me.” Diagnosed with diabetes,rheumatism, neuralgia, and cataracts in 1911, she did not slow down, but after 1914 she was forced to stop painting as she became almost blind. Nonetheless, she took up the cause of women’s suffrage, and in 1915, she showed eighteen works in an exhibition supporting the movement.

She died on June 14, 1926 at Château de Beaufresne, near Paris, and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Théribus, France.

Source: Wikipedia/Mary Cassat website