An Artists' Artist: Mary Cassatt
Category - Old Master
Written by Kellie A. Hanna

The artists that we know of today as the Impressionists faced difficult beginnings and had to work for years through the barrier of public resistance and mockery. They developed in 1874 as a manifestation of what was then " a new spirit of artistic freedom", and a defiance of conventional attitudes toward art. They called themselves "The Anonymous Cooperative Society of Artists, Sculptors, Engravers, etc., Endowed with Variable Capital and Personnel." Their first exhibit, hung by Renoir in 1874 featured "165 works by 30 artists, including Degas, Monet, Pissaro, and Boudin."

Although it "was well-attended," the exhibit was met with hostility and amusement, and was "by no means a commercial success." They were so unpopular in their time that without the patronage and support of a few believers such as the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, "who sustained many of shows and...solo exhibits...," they would probably not have survived as a group.

Like Durand-Ruel, Mary Cassatt--a young, aspiring artist at the time--saw value and beauty in the works of the group, and developed a lasting faith in them. She would eventually become one of Degas' closest and most loyal friends, and made her first acquaintance with him through his art: "'How...I remember...seeing for the first time Degas' pastels in the window of used to...flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life.'"

At a time when art as a career was frowned upon for women, Cassatt went to Europe as a young artist from the United States to independently study at the Louvre and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and to learn from the works of other artists. In the late 1860's her painting The Mandolin Player (1868, oil on canvas), was accepted for exhibit at the Paris Salon, the "final arbiter of artistic taste" at the time. She admired and studied the 17th Century Realists, and "The Mandolin Player" is stylistically similar to that period.

Still, Cassatt was intensely interested in contemporary art. The Salon had a stronghold on the artworld, and held artists in a tight grip of rules and regulations. Cassatt's interest in and appreciation for the new art grew despite this, and after two of her subsuquent paintings were rejected by the Salon "for being too bright" she moved away from it's grip and closer to the creative freedom of the Impressionists.

In 1877 she was visited in her studio by Degas. Having previously seen and admired her work, he invited her to join the Independents. "'I accepted with joy,'" she later said of this. "'Finally I would be able to work with absolute independence...I rejected conventional art...I began to live....'"

She studied closely the works of her colleagues and developed her own strong style and sense of color. She became enormously popular in France, and was known for her originality of expression. J.K. Huysmans, who was critical of the Impressionists, praised Cassatt as "' artist who owes nothing to anyone, an artist who is wholly spontaneous and personal...She achieves in Paris something that none of our painters could express....'"

Her themes center around women and children--usually those in her own and friends' families. A Cup of Tea (1879, oil on canvas) is an example of her "affinity for themes centered around the...rituals of women," and as it is said to represent Cassatt's artistic maturity, shows further development of the Impressionist style. A Cup of Tea was shown at the 5th Impressionist exhibit and recieved favorable critical reviews.

Cassatt's career flourished in France. She poured herself into her work, and was eventually able to sell some paintings. Yet while she would continue to recieve praise and acknowledgement in her adopted home, she recieved consistent disappopintment from her "seemingly indifferent" native country. Still, she insisted on making an impact there, and decided to use her influence to help build public collections of art in the United States; Durand-Ruel went to her to find buyers among her "countrymen," and she was able to refer him to clients and encouraged him to sell there.

She was more fortunate than her brethren. Having come from a wealthy family, she did not have the concerns of financial support for her art. She became a tireless champion for the movement, however, and used her background and connections to move the new art forward. She would eventually become most instrumental in garnering early acceptance of the movement in the United States "through her social contacts with rich private collectors."

Her work eventaully paid off when, in 1904 she recieved recognition from her "compatriots." Her former school, the Pennsylvania Academy, awarded her the Lippincott prize at it's 73rd annual exhibition for the painting Caress (oil on canvas); but Cassatt refused the award according to the pledge she had taken with the Independents, "'no jury, no medals, no awards.'" She did, however, accept the Legion d'honneur from the French government later that same year.

As a generous woman "...who sought...strength," Cassatt passionately sought in her lifetime to express her creative freedom in the face of adversity, and won. Her efforts toward the advancement of free artistic expression combined with her paintings and etchings make her one of the most influential but (ironically) least remembered Impressionists.

A Cup of Tea
Oil on Canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Janson, H.W. History of Art, 3rd ed.
1986, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York.
(p. 636)

Roudebush, J. Mary Cassatt.
1979, Crown Publishers, Inc.: New York.
(pps. 5-80)

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