A thoroughly modern Mary

Mary Cassatt show at the National Gallery shows her prodigious talent.


From the evidence of her pictures, the subtitle to the National Gallery in Washington's show "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman" refers more to the artist's choice of profession than of subject matter.

Cassatt was certainly the most important American Impressionist and probably the most important woman painter of the 19th century, facts that attest to her modernity in an age that regarded women as unsuited to professional artmaking.

As an American expatriate in Paris from the 1870s on, Cassatt not only made her living as an artist, she was also a prodigious, first-rate talent whose original contributions to the development of Impressionism were acknowledged by her peers in the movement. (She was never content to imitate others and despised those who, like fellow American John Singer Sargent, she considered to be merely aping a style.)

Cassatt developed a close friendship with Edgar Degas, the painter of dancers, who shared her interest in the figure. Degas offered Cassatt encouragement, advice and an introduction into the Impressionist circle. Later, he invited her to exhibit with the group that had been famously rejected from the official salons.

Cassatt never hesitated to be counted among what was probably the most ridiculed and misunderstood band of artists Paris had ever produced. And she lived to see both her career and theirs vindicated.

The National Gallery show follows Cassatt's career from her early pictures of Spanish subjects made during the 1870s through her mature work of the 1890s in Paris.

Born in 1844, Cassatt was the daughter of a well-to-do Philadelphia family that had the means to educate her at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then the country's premier art school. Her instruction there consisted largely of learning to draw from plaster casts of antique statues and copying Old Master paintings (or engraved copies of paintings; there was still a dearth of original European master paintings in this country at the time).

She quickly realized that she would have to go to Europe to continue her art education. Her first trip there was in 1865.

Artist as a young woman

Because of the restrictive policy against women at the official school of fine arts in Paris, Cassatt took private lessons from a number of prominent artist-teachers, including Charles Chaplin, Jean Leon Gerome, Pierre Edouard Frere and Thomas Couture.

The Franco-Prussian War forced her to return to Philadelphia in 1870. But she was back in Europe a year later to carry out a commission from a Pittsburgh church for copies of two paintings by Correggio.

As it turned out, she completed only one of the copies that had been commissioned (it was later destroyed by fire) before traveling to Madrid and Seville to study the Spanish masters Velasquez, Goya and Murillo.

She also created original works. "The Flirtation: A Balcony in Seville" and "Offering the Panal to the Bullfighter," both painted between 1872 and 1873, are genre scenes of a kind popular at that time, but they also show what Cassatt had absorbed of Velasquez' use of color and penetrating psychological insight.

Cassatt returned to Paris in 1873 and decided to settle there permanently in 1874. She painted some conventional portraits and exhibited in the Paris Salon, but it was a chance encounter with Degas' pastels in a shop window that changed her life and art forever.

Modern life was what the Impressionists championed as their subject matter, and though they never issued any artistic manifestoes, Cassatt embraced the new way of seeing wholeheartedly.

The subjects she chose were those to which her social background gave her access: the world of privileged upper-class women who attended the theater and the opera and visited each other's homes.

In the 1870s, she portrayed these women in the same luminous yet disciplined colors in which her friend Degas painted dancers. In such pictures as "Portrait of a Lady" (1877) and "Women in a Loge" (1881) she shows her female subjects as poised, intelligent and stylish figures against a backdrop of material opulence and cultural ferment.

In the mid-1870s, Cassatt was joined in Paris by her mother and older sister, Lydia. Many of her paintings from this period depict Lydia engaged in typical pastimes of women of her class: sitting in a loge at the theater, taking tea, reading, knitting or embroidering at home.

These pictures have a wonderful freshness that make them more than mere documents of a bygone era. Her compositions have a formal elegance that charms despite their breaking the conventional rules of visual structure.

Cassatt's beloved sister Lydia died in 1882, and the paintings that followed this loss marked a new phase of the artist's development.

Her female figures became become solid and literal, while the theme of motherhood, which seemed to have figured only incidentally in her earlier painting, gradually became the dominant characteristic of her work.

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