Friday, May 23, 2008

A Woman on Her Own

When you search for the art of Mary Cassatt in most museums, it’s hard to know where to look. Born May 22, 1844, Cassatt is often placed alongside the
French Impressionists with whom she worked and studied. Other times, her American nationality takes precedence and she appears in the American wing. What can’t be disputed, however, is her vital presence in the history of late nineteenth century art and the long history of women in art. Cassatt’s Mary At the Theater (above, from 1879) shows the influence of Edgar Degas, her greatest friend and teacher among the Impressionists. The same vibrant, almost pulsating pastel strokes Degas used in his works appear in Cassatt’s portrait set at the theater, a passion she shared with Degas. Thanks to the wealth of her family, Cassatt could pursue a career in art against all the obstacles society and the art world placed in the way of women artists.

After studying at the PAFA in a patronizing atmosphere where, she complained, “There was no teaching” for women, Cassatt traveled to Europe to study the Old Masters first hand. Jean-Léon Gérôme, who also taught Cassatt’s old PAFA classmate Thomas Eakins, began the string of male teachers and mentors that continued with Thomas Couture before ending with Degas and Pissarro. Whereas some other women artists pursued art as a way to obtain a husband, Cassatt remained focused on her career, never marrying. The domestic life she sacrificed for herself became her greatest subject in such works as The Child's Bath (or The Bath) (above, from 1893). The tender intimacy of these parent and child images demonstrates Cassatt’s psychological depth, even though such intimacies could only come for her with nieces and nephews.

I remember seeing in late 2006 Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (above, from 1878) during the Americans in Paris: 1860-1900 show at the at the Met and being blown away. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer size of the painting in reproduction, which is as sprawling as the child herself. The freedom of the brushstrokes gives this work a tremendous energy, which is itself a paradox considering the lazing posture of the little girl. Cassatt not only copied the Impressionists but internalized the spirit of their movement. No other American so beautifully translates the French mystique of the Impressionists to an American setting. Cassatt was fortunate in that her family’s fortune freed her to follow her dream and pursue it all the way to Europe. How many other artists—women, African-Americans—would have flourished given a similar chance? Looking at Cassatt’s paintings, you truly appreciate how much more there could have been.

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