Culture and Recreation

Fine Art

How did American Mary Cassatt join the Paris art world of the impressionists?

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), the daughter of a wealthy investment banker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, traveled to Paris in 1866 in the company of her mother and some women friends; the young Cassatt was determined to join the city’s community of artists. Since women were not allowed to enroll in classes at Paris’s Institute of Beaux Arts (the policy was changed in 1897), Cassatt privately studied painting and traveled in Europe, pursuing her artistic interests. Returning to Paris in 1874, she became acquainted with Edgar Degas (1834–1917), who remarked that the American artist possessed an “infinite talent” and that she was “a person who feels as I do.” He made these observations after viewing one of her paintings at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Cassatt went on to exhibit with the impressionists in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886, gaining her first solo exhibit in 1891.

Judith Barter, curator of American arts at the Art Institute of Chicago and organizer of the traveling exhibit “Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman,” describes Cassatt as “a very good businesswoman … who knew how to market her career.” During three and a half years of research, which she conducted to launch the exhibit, Barter explored the prevailing social climate of the day: The late nineteenth century was a time when feminists, who organized to campaign for political and social reforms (eventually winning women the vote in 1920), focused on maternity, encouraging women to be involved in caring for their children. To Cassatt, observed Barter, maternity was “the highest expression of womanhood.” Women and children were the subjects of Cassatt’s body of works, which includes oil paintings, pastels, prints, and etchings.

Cassatt’s place among the impressionists has often been overshadowed by her male colleagues, and her contributions to the art world are mentioned only in passing in many art books, but her talent, insights, and sheer determination combined to create an impressive legacy. As Gaugin quipped, “Mary Cassatt has charm but she also has force.”


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