Mary S. Cassatt (1844-1926)

Mary S. Cassatt (1844-1926)

Born in 1844 in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt was recognized by the turn of the twentieth Century as one of the preeminent painters both of her native country and of France, where she made her permanent home in 1875. Cassatt was the only American artist to join the French Impressionist group in Paris, and she did so in 1877, at the invitation of her friend Edgar Degas. Cassatt particularly admired Degas’ work in the pastel medium, and his constructive criticism and continual efforts to introduce her to new techniques had a lasting effect on her mature style. Around 1915, Cassatt wrote to her friend Louisine Havemeyer: How well I remember nearly forty years ago seeing for the first time Degas’ pastels in the window of a picture dealer in the Boulevard Haussmann. I would go there and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.[1] Like Degas, Cassatt worked quite often in pastel demonstrating her skill with draftsmanship, while displaying a rich layering of color and tone.

[1] Nancy Mowll Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life, New York, 1994, p. 5

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Though a sensitive painter of women and even the occasional male subject, Cassatt achieved her greatest success in the depiction of maternity, upon which she capitalized throughout her career. It was in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition that Cassatt first displayed pictures of the mother and child theme. This focus attracted her partly because of its strong tradition in Western art, as well as the relationship’s meaning to the essence of life itself.  As Nancy M. Mathews writes:  Once Cassatt had incorporated the mother and child theme into her oeuvre, she tended to treat it in a serial manner . . . This serial approach came naturally to her, since it had long been her habit to derive a number of compositional schemes from working with particular models and then to develop these into full-scale paintings, pastels, and prints.[1] 

In 1910, Cassatt made a two month journey up the Nile with her brother Gardner and his family. Tragically, Gardner died in Paris in April 1911 as a result of an illness contracted on the voyage; overwhelmed by grief and exhausted by the trip, Cassatt stopped working entirely until 1913.  There was a subsequent period of two years in which she worked once more, before failing eyesight forced her to give up her art permanently. 

Cassatt's final pastels received high praise. H.O. and Louisine Havemeyer, the celebrated collectors of Impressionist art, acquired two examples (Breeskin, nos. 599-600; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), as did the Texas railroad tycoon James Stillman (Breeskin, nos. 593-594; Private collection and Westmoreland County Museum of Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania). Cassatt herself was confident that her latest work was her strongest, writing to Louisine Havemeyer about seven pastels that she delivered to Durand-Ruel in December 1913, "They were in many respects the best that I have done, more freely handled and more brilliant in color" (as quoted in E.J. Bullard, Mary Cassatt, Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, p. 84.)

[1] Nancy Mowll Mathews and Barbara Stern Shapiro, Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, New York, 1989, p.111

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