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Mary Cassatt: The Woman Who Wasn’t Allowed to Draw

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, an artist, and printmaker hailing from America, was among the Impressionist circle based in Paris. Art by Mary Cassatt primarily focused on the personal lives of present-day women, with a particular interest in their responsibilities as child caregivers. Painter Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Allegheny City, a region that constitutes a portion of Pittsburgh. Her genesis was marked by advantageous conditions: her father, Robert Simpson Cassatt, was an accomplished stock trader and real estate investor, while her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, hailed from a banking family. During a lengthy family trip through Europe, her parents gave her permission and support to attend drawing classes, but as she chose to make a career in the field of arts, they became hesitant about it in the later years.

Mary Cassatt Self Portrait
Courtesy – National Portrait Gallery

Back then, it was not a common practice for women of the upper class to pursue a career in the field of Fine Arts. The job linked with being a mistress, participating in nude drawing sessions, and engaging in public life went against the traditional expectations of women as caregivers and mothers. Throughout her existence, artist Mary Cassatt struggled with balancing her non-traditional decisions in both her career and personal life (as she never wed) with the expectations instilled in her during her upbringing. Cassatt came from a family of seven siblings, but unfortunately, two of them passed away during infancy. At the age of six, she started attending school after her family relocated to Lancaster, Pennsylvania followed by settling in the Philadelphia region.

Mary Cassatt, Five O’Clock Tea, 1880 Courtesy – Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Mary Cassatt‘s upbringing placed great importance on education with travel, prompting her to spend half a decade in Europe and venture to various important cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin. During her time overseas, she was introduced to the fundamentals of drawing and music, and she acquired proficiency in both German and French. It is possible that her initial encounter with the works of Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet, who were French artists, occurred at the 1855 Paris World’s Fair. Future colleagues and mentors showcased at the exhibition included Degas and Pissarro. Between 1860 and 1862, she pursued her artistic education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1865, through her persuasion, she gained her parents’ permission to enrol in art studies in Paris.

Mary Cassatt The Boating Party
Courtesy – Wikipedia

She received private training from the esteemed academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and dedicated herself to replicating the works of the great painters, as well as to the art of sketching. She received her education under the guidance of Édouard Frère and Paul Soyer while residing in Couranceand Écouen. In 1868, the Paris Salon welcomed Mary Cassatt artwork, titled ‘The Mandolin Player’ (which is currently under private collection). Cassatt’s studies in France came to a halt when the Franco-Prussian War occurred after three-and-a-half years, prompting her return to Philadelphia in the late summer of 1870.

Young Mother and Two Children, 1908 Courtesy – White House Historical Association

In 1874, artist Mary Cassatt decided to make Paris her permanent home and set up her own studio there. She had a common interest with the Impressionists in experimenting and incorporating vivid outdoor-inspired hues. She became friends with Edgar Degas and drew inspiration from both his and Gustave Courbet‘s styles to develop her own unique style. Degas had a deep appreciation for her drawing skills, leading him to request her participation in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1879, as well as shows in 1880, 1881, and 1886. Mary Cassatt, like Degas, demonstrated remarkable drawing skills, and both had a preference for naturally arranged, unbalanced compositions.

Mary Cassatt Breakfast In Bed
Courtesy – Flickr

Early Mary Cassatt paintings utilized pastels as a medium. At first, Cassatt primarily created Impressionist-style paintings of individuals who were either her friends, family members, or their offspring. In 1890, following the successful showcasing of Japanese prints in Paris, she released a collection of 10 coloured prints, including pieces such as Woman Bathing and The Coiffure, which display the influence of Japanese masters Utamaro and Toyokuni. Mary Cassatt prints boasted skillful blending aquatint, dry point, and soft ground. She changed her focus and began giving more importance to lines and patterns rather than form. The predominant subject matter during her later and more recognizable phase is the nurturing of infants by mothers, as seen in works such as The Child’s Bath (1893) and Mother and Child (Baby Getting Up from His Nap).