Born in what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1844, Cassatt studied at the PAFA before growing tired of the old boys network there and traveling to Europe. After studying the works of the old masters in her travels to the capitals of Europe, Cassatt studied with Camille Pissarro, who first introduced her to Impressionism. She soon discovered the works of Edgar Degas, who supported Cassatt’s art and greatly influenced her approach to pastels. (Degas’ painting Mary Cassatt at the Louvre is above.) Cassatt may also owe some of her obsessive approach to the subject of mothers and children to Degas’ similar obsession with dancers and the theater.
I’d like, however, to show aspects of Cassatt beyond the great mother-child images. Like many of the Impressionists, Cassatt was influenced by Japanese art in the Japonisme craze of the late 19th century. Cassatt’s Boating Party (seen above) shows this Japanese influence in the cropped figure of the rower at the right. In addition, this work takes the familiar motif of mother and child and adds psychological depth with the almost sinister figure of the rower, whose dark presence in the foreground seems to threaten the other two figures. Such psychological depth helps dismiss characterizations of Cassatt as a “pretty” painter. Cassatt’s wide-ranging interests, including women’s suffrage in the United States and late-in-life travels to exotic Egypt, testify to her seriousness as an artist as well.
After seeing last year Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Americans in Paris: 1860-1900, I had even greater respect for her as an artist. Viewing the brushstrokes up close and then stepping back to put it all back into focus, the designs on the blue chairs are nothing short of amazing. Even the composition that goes into the dog at left cannot be done justice in reproduction. The pose of the little girl, with its almost eroticized undertones, raises this work beyond the deceivingly comfortable sphere of her mother and child works.
Like John Singer Sargent, Cassatt is an American who always seems more European than anything else. Fortunately, they both belong to the whole world today.