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The Golden Age of Russian Impressionism

Smart About Art: Mother's Day and the Art of Mary Cassatt

Smart About Art: Mary Cassatt and "Mother and Child"


Mary Stevenson Cassatt, 1844-1926, the daughter of a very prosperous local businessman, was born near Pittsburgh, PA. She led a privileged life, spending much of her childhood in Paris, France, and Germany with her family. In 1858 her family moved to Philadelphia and she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1861-1865, although her family felt that a career in painting was unsuitable for a woman of her class. Philadelphia was a minor center for the arts at this time so in keeping with her independent, original spirit, Mary Cassatt left to study in France after the Civil War.


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The Boating Party (1893)
She studied briefly in Paris with an academic painter, Charles Chaplin, but she began to work mainly on her own, first copying the work of Old Masters including the works of Correggio, Hals, Rubens and Velazquez. Cassatt was known as "une Americaine" or "the American" by other painters in Paris; although she was called an expatriate in her own country, she always considered herself an American in spite of infrequent trips home. In 1870, at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, she returned to the United States and sold her work while there. She returned to Parma, Italy, in 1872 to attend the Art Academy where she continued her studies. A trip to Seville was most influential since she was able to study the work of Velasquez and other Spanish Realist painters. By 1873, Mary Cassatt returned to Paris, where she began a lifelong friendship with Louisine Elder, who became Mrs. Havemeyer, the initiator of the great Havemeyer art collection which eventually went to the Metropolitan Museum, New York.


Text Box:  Under the Horse Chestnut Tree (1898)Between 1872 and 1876, she exhibited her work at the annual Salon in Paris. In the Salon of 1874, Edgar Degas admired a painting by young Mary Cassatt and he remarked "There is a person who feels as I do." Degas, 10 years her senior, invited Mary Cassatt to join a small group of advanced painters called the Impressionists who, at that time, were the most ridiculed group of artists in Europe. She stopped sending her work to the annual Salon, began to exhibit with the Impressionists and sent paintings to exhibitions in the United States. Her friendship with Degas lasted for the rest of her life; he became a friend, mentor and confidant.


It was also Degas who introduced Cassatt to printmaking. The artist's print was extremely popular in Paris and an excellent way to spread one's work around as well as make extra income. Lithography and etching were less interesting to Cassatt than drawing and painting but Degas was experimenting with techniques that produced more "painterly" effects. His work inspired Cassatt to create a series of elegant and inventive prints using the rhythmic profiles and asymmetrical designs of Japanese prints in a new way.


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The Bath (1893)
In "The Bath", 1891, the Japanese influence is very strong with the daring use of many different patterns: the woman's boldly striped gown, the carpet and the Oriental design on the water pitcher in the foreground. In 1893-94, she painted "The Boating Party" which is one of the strongest designs of all her canvases. The strong, black silhouette of the oarsman with his black shirt and pants, black beret and ultramarine blue sash, fills the foreground. The colors are strong and intense: blue-green sea, acid yellow and bright white boat, the beautiful lighter blue of the dress. All the shapes are strong but natural, especially the relaxed position of the baby's legs which is a pleasant contrast to the other more rigid forms of the oars and arms.


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Mother and Child (1905)
The 1905 painting "Mother and Child" by Mary Cassatt is a fine example of her Impressionistic candor and constant individuality. This painting delights us with one of her favorite subjects; an intimate, everyday domestic scene of a mother and child. Compositional ideas that she learned from Degas include cropping and framing the scene, as we experience here, to include us as the viewer in the moment. She adopted the use of strong diagonals that are formed by the chair arms and back while the mirror frame marks the background with a strong vertical and horizontal. Movement and activity are created primarily by the eyes, arms and hands of the mother and child in the composition. They are posed in relaxed positions with eyes averted, apparently unaware of anyone watching them. The space seems shallow since more emphasis is given to color, texture and design than the creation of depth. A reflection of the mother and child in the mirrors to their right creates an entirely new image, an alternate view of the scene and visual interest.

Mary Cassatt's interest in Impressionism was natural because it agreed with ideas she held regarding the nature of art. She has been called the best of the American Impressionists and the outstanding woman painter of the nineteenth century. Her work has had more impact in America than in Europe and was eagerly purchased by American collectors. She was most influential in directing attention and interest away from European Old masters work toward new fresh ideas, starting with Impressionism.

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