In spite of their popularity during my lifetime, I’ve never been a huge fan of many of the Impressionists. But there are a few that I have loved from the first time I saw their work; Degas, Manet, Caillebotte. Ranking in that top group is the only American and only one of two women (the other being Berthe Morisot) to break into the ranks of first generation Impressionists, Mary Cassatt. She is an artist I love.
Today, she is best known for her domestic scenes of mother and child such as the two below.
But, as is typical of most artists, what she was most famous for was not her style at the beginning of her career. She first painted images using a low intensity palette of color, with grays and browns predominating, as was the fashion in the Paris Salon. The subject matter was somewhat theatrical and staged, removed from elements of everyday life, much like a studio portrait photograph is now.
As refined and polished as these paintings are, you can see in the unfinished double portrait below that she had a very exciting and vibrant brush stroke underlying her work.
Between the early 1870s, when these paintings were created and exhibited at the official Salon in Paris and the late 1870s, Cassatt had an artistic transformation. The catalyst for this transformation was her interaction with a fellow artist, Edgar Degas.
Degas, 10 years older than Cassatt, first saw her work at her studio in 1877 and immediately invited her to be part of the ‘independents’ exhibition of artists known as ‘Impressionists’ (a name neither of them ever liked). However, before they had ever met, Cassatt had been enthralled by a number of pastel drawings of Degas she had seen in a storefront window. It was this first brush with his style that freed her to pursue a new direction in her own.
Mary by Edgar
Degas painted Cassatt at least 8 times. He used this one drawing of Cassatt as a basis for at least 3 other paintings and drawings.
Here’s one of them.
At the Opera
One of Cassatt’s most well known works is this one. Interesting to note the social commentary she’s added to the painting with the older gentleman in the background looking at the woman as she looks at the stage.
She also depicted herself at the theater.
This one is not designated a self-portrait as far as I can tell, but the face does look very similar to Cassatt so I think it’s a good bet it is of her.
The one below is not a self-portrait but is of interest because of her experimentation with metallic paint amidst the more traditional material.
Cassatt was a rigorous experimentalist with her art. She not only embraced a then radical painting style, but she also investigated many areas outside her realm of expertise. She often used the same image (as do many artists), transforming it by using different media. First is a quick sketch of a scene at the Opera. This could very likely have been done at the actual opera house.
She then returned to her studio and created an oil painting of the scene.
She then created two entirely new pieces using the printmaking techniques of Etching and Aquatint.
In 1890 an exhibition of Japanese prints came to Paris. When Cassatt saw the show she was immediately taken by the graceful simplicity of line and color. She started in on a series of prints influenced by this style. She embraced this style and recreated it with a modern French sensibility.
Once again, you can see her experimenting. In this case she uses the same Intaglio plate, to print different versions of the same image.
Mary Cassatt became a very famous and respected artist and collector of art. She was award the Legion d’honneur by France in 1904 for her contribution to the arts. She continued to paint well into the 20th century. Her style by that time was set and she did little further experimentation. Her subject matter from 1900 on was almost exclusively domestic scenes of mothers and children.
She even had 2 prints in the famous 1913 Armory show in New York City. However, by 1914 she was blind and ceased to paint. She died in 1926. Ironically, her reputation in the US was not nearly as grand as it was in France. She was overshadowed by her brother, a railroad magnate, and had an unfortunate split with her sister-in-law over women’s suffrage. As a result her family boycotted an exhibition of her work in Philadelphia. This led her to donate her vast collection of her paintings still in her possession to museums and not her heirs.
- Week #5 – Francisco Goya
- Week #4 – Robert Irwin
- Week #3 – Veruschka
- Week #2 – Albrecht Durer
- Week #1 – Roger Brown
- Week #10 – Coco Larrain
- Week #9 – Nina Levy
- Week #8 – Andy Goldsworthy
- Week #7 – Wayne Thiebaud
- Week #6 – Richard Diebenkorn
- Week #5 – Roy Lichtenstein
- Week #4 – Thomas Hart Benton
- Week #3 – Edward Hopper
- Week #2 – Henri Matisse
- Week #1 – Rembrandt