Guest Post by Pat Knepley
Most people think of France when they think of the Impressionism era of art. And indeed, French Impressionism is the most famous branch of that era and has the most recognized names in history: Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne.
But there were many American artists that had also adapted the techniques and sensibilities of the Impressionist movement. Mary Cassatt was one of these.
Mary Cassatt’s Early Life
Mary Stevenson Cassatt could be considered both French and American. She was born in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in May 1844. Raised in a wealthy family, she was brought up to be a lady and eventually a wife and mother. But Mary had other ideas.
While she was young, Mary traveled with her family all over the world, and in fact had drawing lessons when she visited the cities of London, Paris and Rome. She even learned to speak German and French.
Much to her father’s dismay, she enrolled in Art school in Philadelphia when she was 16, since her family moved to that area when she was six. Cassatt experienced some discrimination, as the male establishment there did not take kindly to a woman who actually wanted to make art her profession rather than just a hobby. Frustrated with the lack of seriousness she experienced, she left the Academy of Fine Arts without completing her studies and moved to Paris in 1866 to study with Masters on her own.
Cassatt’s Education in Paris
Under the instruction of the French artist Jean-Leon Gerome, Cassatt went to the Paris museum the Louvre every day to copy masterworks. This is where many of the young French artists met the Americans who came there to learn side by side. Cassatt painted in the traditional, realistic style, and submitted works to be shown at the Paris Salon, the premier place for artists to showcase their works. She would have some pieces accepted to show at the Salon, but saw discrimination there, too. It was a constant struggled to be accepted as a serious female artist.
In 1871, she traveled to Italy to work on a commission by the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, and while there she painted “Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival” that was shown at the Salon of 1872 and brought her notoriety. After a trip to Spain to study paintings there, Cassatt made the decision in 1874 to settle in Paris and make it her home. Her sister Lydia decided to join her and be her roommate.
Influences on Cassatt
France was her home for most of her adult life. Cassatt continued to submit her artwork to the Paris Salon but became disenchanted with the politics, and in 1877, for the first time in seven years, she had no art shown there. SO her friend, artist Edgar Degas, invited Cassatt to show her work with a group of artists known as the Impressionists. This band of maverick painters had rallied together to create their own art show in opposition to the Salon that they felt was stuck in tradition. Since Cassatt admired Degas and his art greatly, she readily accepted his invitation and began to paint with gusto. She exhibited with the Impressionists for the first time in April 1879. Over a period of two years, her brushstrokes loosened up, and she adopted a style of more immediacy.
Cassatt liked to paint spontaneous scenes from daily life, particularly situations involving mothers and children. This became the motif of most of her paintings, though she did paint landscapes and other scenes. But her tender portrayal of the bond between a mother and child is the theme most identified with Cassatt.
With the influence of the French impressionist painters that she socialized with, Cassatt explored a lighter touch and more pastel colors that created a softness that suited her subject matter. She was especially influenced by her dear friend Edgar Degas, who mastered chalk pastels as well as oil paint. Cassatt also used this new medium to great effect as she moved away from the traditional painting style employed at the start of her career.
Cassatt’s Growing Popularity
Cassatt remained with the Impressionists through 1886. During the time she considered herself an Impressionist, she brought the paintings of her French artist friends to the attention of many American collectors, thus she was instrumental in highlighting this art movement back home. Cassatt never married, as she felt that it would not be compatible to her career as an artist, though she was devoted to her parents and siblings, and certainly was a loyal and dear friend to all who knew her. One wonders if she had a maternal streak as her portraits of mothers with children are so captivatingly real without being overly sentimental.
Cassatt’s work finally became popular with audiences and critics in the 1900s, and she continued painting her best-known subject of mother and child until near blindness forced her to give up painting in 1914. She died in 1926 in a town near Paris and is buried with her family in France.
Mary Cassatt Art Project
For an art class project, Home educators can view some of the many works of Mary Cassatt with their students, then ask them to draw in chalk pastels or colored pencils an everyday activity that is done with Mom or Grandmom.
In Cassatt’s “Young Mother Sewing”, a preschool-aged child leans into her mother’s lap as the mother continues to mend a garment. The two are happy to simply be in each other’s presence during this routine task.
Start with the basic form of the mother, and place her in the scene with whatever the activity is. Rather than trying to fit the mom’s entire body, think in terms of a
close-up – focus on the area of activity. Is it the hands doing something? The face? Some suggestions for activities would be washing the dishes, walking the dog, brushing your hair, setting a table, or even reading a book together. Once the mother figure is in place with some sketched in lines, then add in the child or children of your family. Fill in with pastel colors. Once the pastel drawing is complete, take outside on a non-windy day and spray lightly with cheap aerosol hairspray to set the chalk pastel. A mother and child drawing in the style of Mary Cassatt would be a great gift for mom or grandmother as well!
Here’s a fun video on the works of Mary Cassatt: