While America has produced hundreds of internationally acclaimed artists, none have approached the achievement of Mary Cassatt, who was accepted as an equal by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and her great friend Edgar Degas.
Mary Cassatt was the first American Impressionist, observes Mary Beaumont, an artist and art teacher at the Chester County Art Association who graduated from Cassatt’s alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
As much as Cassatt became identified with Paris and the world the Impressionists inhabited, she never forgot that she was American. She didn’t go for extremes of high and low in her art. She didn’t ridicule or sentimentalize. She found the human qualities in whatever she painted.
Not content merely to make great art, she used the proceeds she earned from selling her art to buy other Impressionist works.
She steered visiting American students to Impressionist artists and persuaded her family and friends to collect Impressionist art.
Her work now hangs in the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and nearly a hundred other museums and public galleries throughout the world.
Cassatt became a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage, a feminist icon before the concept, and the term, had been invented.
She was attuned to that modern coolness, the hipness about who people are, that idea that you can learn about people by the way they hold a tea cup or the kind of dress they have, says Nancy Mathews, a Haverford High School graduate who is now an art historian and curator at Williams College, and the author of seven books about Cassatt.
“She really was one of the best artists of her generation and her work survives because of the qualities that she had. But that’s not enough to make it to the top of the pyramid. She came from a family that understood investment and money, how to make it and keep it. And she applied that to the art world.”
Very little remain of Cassatt’s American roots. Her brother left us Cassatt Road, which winds through Berwyn, from Swedesford Road down to Conestoga. On this road, at Chesterbrook Farm, Alexander Johnson Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a founder of the National Steeplechase Association, raised and raced thoroughbreds. Mary stayed at the family’s Philadelphia mansion on the west side of Rittenhouse Square, which was torn down to make way for the Rittenhouse Hotel, which serves a high tea in its Mary Cassatt Tea Room.
Pittsburgh’s Trinity Church, where she was baptized Mary Stevenson Cassat (the family added the extra ‘t” later) on May 22, 1844, is now Trinity Cathedral. Allegheny City, the wealthy suburb where she, and Gertrude Stein, were born, has been absorbed into the Pittsburgh city limits.
Cassatt’s father, Robert, was an investment banker and land speculator. Her mother bore three boys and three girls. After one of the girls died in infancy, Robert took his family to Europe. The seven-year-old Mary was probably given a sketchbook to amuse herself.
According to Nancy Mathers, almost nothing survives from her juvenilia in public collections. We do know that she did portraits, mostly drawings, occasionally paintings of anybody she could get her hands on who would sit still long enough. That included her family, neighbors, and cousins. She purposely destroyed a lot of her work.
When the family returned in 1855, they inhabited a number of houses in eastern Pennsylvania, as Robert invested in the region’s iron industry, which was being developed by his relatives, the Gardners and the Colemans.
You can stand at the intersection of High and Miner Streets in West Chester and see, on the southeast corner, a three-story Greek Revival house that Cassatt’s father rented for a year in 1855. The other houses of Mary’s youth, in Lancaster, Westtown, and on Penn Square in Philadelphia, are gone. So is the old Chestnut Street location of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where, in 1864, the 15-year-old Mary became the youngest woman ever admitted.
The kind of instruction she received consisted mostly of drawing casts of classical statuary, says Robert Cozzolino, curator of the Academy’s modern art collection, which includes an early Cassatt painting, and a pastel drawing on paper.
It was almost a given that she would challenge the teaching she got here. She was aware of the prevailing belief that a budding artist should get some of her education here but if she were really serious about her art, she had to go to Europe.
So off she went, with her mother as chaperone, to take art courses there. In 1871, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, however, Cassatt returned to live with her family in Altoona. Her father offered to support her, but refused to pay for art materials. In despair, Cassatt tore up a portrait she had made of him. In a letter to a friend, she wrote that she did not touch a brush for six weeks “nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe. I am very anxious to go out west next fall & get some employment, but I have not yet decided where.”
She eventually chose Chicago, where two paintings she gave to a gallery to sell were destroyed in the Great Chicago fire of 1871.
Once more, she returned to Paris and began to earn a living as a working artist. While other Impressionists painted gardens, Paris street scenes, dance halls, nudes, and bordellos, Mary Cassatt’s great subject was maternity.
About a third of the nearly 400 works she produced in her lifetime are portraits of women with small children, many of them babies. The women, be they nurses, mothers, or older sisters, appear massive and strong, holding or sheltering infants who, though small and occasionally diminutive, exude a power and depth of character that suggests they are fully realized human beings impatient to cast their own shadows.
When Cassatt’s family visited her she painted them with an unsentimental affection. Among the dozen or so Cassatts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a seated portrait of her brother Alexander with his young son Robert on his lap. Both men wear clothes of such a dense black they seem to merge into one being. Yet, Alexander, a man of responsibility and civic probity, calmly reads his newspaper while Robert stares restively ahead, eager to dash off for whatever awaits him.
Cassatt is a painter of people, of family life, and of the story of a certain social class in France, Cozzolino says. Her bright, pastel portraits of mothers and children, women at the opera, and families in repose are even more popular and valuable since her death in France in 1926.
In addition to what she learned from Degas and the Impressionists, she also learned the language of Japanese prints, and integrated that seamlessly into her art. She became an important role model for all American artists. She had an essential American quality that she got from her family, from her childhood, so that when confronted with the overwhelming history and tradition of European art, as well as the new world that the Impressionists were opening up, she could say to herself, “Yes, I can do this.”
Cassatt is still an inspiration to art students, and she is very much alive to her descendants.
Mark Meigs, a professor of Anglo-French history who teaches in Paris, puts it this way: “When I am in any of the great museum galleries with members of my family, we have more than a quiet pride in the presence of her paintings, we are a bit in possession. This or that corner of the museum has arrived there from this or that corner of some great- aunt’s house.
“There are anecdotes involved. Where did it hang? In the big living room to the left of the fireplace? The generation before my own could hardly think of pictorial art without thinking of her. In my generation, we are not so much under her spell, and the couple of people I know with artistic ambitions seem to do things unrelated to her work.”
His daughter is currently attending college. Does she have artistic ambitions? Or will she consider a career in other Cassatt family businesses? Time will tell.