- Arts and Design
Mary Cassatt For Kids
Biography of Mary Cassatt
“I would rather see you dead.”
That sounds a bit drastic doesn’t it? But it was what Mary Cassatt’s father said to her when she told him she wanted to be a professional artist. It was 1860 and Mary was 16, and at that time art was not considered a suitable career for a girl, especially one from a wealthy home like Mary’s.
Her father must have changed his mind because Mary Cassatt became a student at the Pennsylvania Art Academy. Students had to copy famous paintings and engravings for several years before being allowed to do their own. Mary soon felt fed up of this and began to paint on her own anyway. Her family had lived in France for a while when she was young, and she began to think that to really learn about art she had to go back to Europe to see famous paintings in France and Italy.
Cassatt moves to Europe
In 1865, along with her friend Eliza Haldeman, Mary went to Paris in France. But women were not allowed to study at the important art school, the École de Beaux-Arts (School of Beautiful Arts.) Instead Mary Cassatt and her friend had private lessons from one of the teachers at the École: Jean-Léon Gérôme. They also got permission to copy paintings at the famous French gallery, The Louvre.
Later they moved to the countryside near Paris and learned from the many artists who lived there.
"On the Balcony"
In 1868 one of Mary Cassatt’s paintings was accepted for an exhibition called The Salon. This exhibition was the most important in France and to have a painting accepted there was a sign of success.
Mary’s family weren’t as impressed as the judges at the salon. On hearing the news, her brother said, “She expects to be famous, poor child.” (Mary was 24 by then!)
Mary goes back to America
In 1870 France went to war with Prussia (Germany) and Mary Cassatt went back home to the United States. Her father was still against her career in art, and although he paid for her living expenses he would not pay for any art supplies. (This might sound as if Mary was spoiled, but in the 19th century it was normal for wealthy parents to pay for their daughter’s living expenses.) Mary Cassatt tried to sell some of her paintings, but several of them were destroyed in a fire.
Cassatt's return to Europe
The archbishop of Pittsburg commissioned Cassatt to copy two paintings by the Italian painter Correggio so in 1872 she returned to Europe, first going to Italy.
When she finished her work there she returned to Paris, and her sister Lydia came to live with her. Although Mary's father did not want her to be an artist, he and her mother came to visit their daughters in France in 1877.
Cassatt had more paintings accepted by the Salon, but felt frustrated with the way the judges looked down on women artists.
Mary Cassatt, painted by Edgar Degas
Cassatt meets Degas
In 1874, the painter Edgar Degas saw Cassatt’s painting, Ida, in the Salon and was impressed. Meantime she also admired his work in a gallery in Paris. Later she said, “I used to press my nose against the window to see his art. It changed my life.”
The two artists did not meet until 1877 when Degas visited Mary Cassatt and invited her to exhibit her paintings with the Impressionist group of painters.
This was a difficult decision for Mary because the Impressionists did not allow their members to exhibit at the Salon. However, that year the paintings she entered were both rejected and so she accepted Degas’s invitation. She was pleased to be showing her work with lively modern painters, and became linked with the Impressionists for many more years. She and Degas were friends for the rest of their lives.
Mary Cassatt and Impressionism
In 1874 a very important event in art took place in Paris. A group of young painters got together and put on their own exhibition. They called it the Independent exhibition, but a critic called them The Impressionists and the name stuck. This group often had their work rejected by the Salon because they did not paint in the traditional way. They were more interested in creating atmosphere than creating a “perfect” picture. They wanted to paint what they actually saw in front of them, and often painted outdoors. At the time it was more usual to draw outside, but then paint the picture in a studio (and artists did not have photographs to refer to back then!)
Impressionists were very interested in how light affected what they saw, and sometimes painted the same scene at different times of day or in different seasons. Because of this they often had to work quickly and their paintings had “looser” brushwork than traditional painting. They more often painted landscapes than people. Mary Cassatt and Degas both used similar techniques to the other Impressionists, but preferred to paint people. This is known as figure painting.
Berthe Morisot was another female Impressonist, and the two women became friends.
Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (1880)
Mary Cassatt's Paintings of Children
Women in the 19th century were not allowed to paint many of the people that men could. It was common for men to learn to draw paint figures by drawing "from life." This means drawing people with no clothes on. Women were not allowed to do this, and it was part of the reason they could not go to the École de Beaux-Arts. Women were also not allowed into many of the cafés where men went, and so mostly painted scenes in their homes.
Children were the people that Mary Cassatt most liked to paint, and it is her paintings of children that she is now most famous for. Although she never had children of her own, she had nieces and nephews and many friends with children. In 1880 her brother came to visit with his family, so she had plenty of models.
Often Cassatt painted mothers with children doing everyday things such as bathing or having a cuddle. In general she painted people doing ordinary activities, such as washing, drinking tea, reading or sewing. The people in her pictures look natural and engrossed in what they are doing. This may not seem unusual to you, but in the 19th century it was!
Compare the painting of Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child, or the painting below to The Balcony, which was painted before Mary Cassatt met Degas. You can see how much her style changed in just a few years!
Techniques in Mary Cassatt's paintings
We are now going to look more closely at some of Cassatt's paintings. First, here are a few ways of talking and writing about art that you might not be familiar with.
Definition of artistic terms
- Loose brushwork: means that paint is not blended so thoroughly and the strokes of the brush can be seen more easily. This makes a painting that is usually less detailed, but livelier, than paintings that are more precise.
- Composition: is how the picture is arranged
- Tone: is how dark or light a picture or object is.
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Degas gave Mary Cassatt advice on this painting, and told her it was very good. She felt angry when it was rejected for a major exhibition, the Paris Exposition Universelle, in 1878. While Little Girl In A Blue Armchair does not look shocking to us today, in 1878 the judges didn’t like the way the girl was sitting in the chair! They thought it to be somewhat unladylike. The way the child is slumped in the chair looks as if she is a little bored with sitting, and would like to get up and run around. The angles of her arms and legs add to the sense of her restlessness and this contrasts with the round shape of the peacefully sleeping dog.
Mary Cassatt used composition and tone to draw our attention to the girl. The chairs take up most of the picture. The area of floor between them is known in art as “negative space.” This is a space between objects that forms a shape. In this painting the negative space forms an arrow pointing towards the foreground where the little girl and her dog sit.
To understand the effects of tone in the painting, half close your eyes and look at the picture.
Did you notice how strongly the light and dark of the little girl’s dress, sash and hair stand out? Even her skin is pale compared to the surroundings. Almost everything apart from the girl is very even in tone, and so she stands out.
The Bath: 1891
A print by the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro
By choosing to paint the mother and child at bath time Mary Cassatt shows the closeness of their relationship. She has used several techniques to add to this feeling of closeness:
- Looking down on them makes them seem more like one.
- The two dark heads next to each other shows their closeness.
- They aren’t looking at us, but are looking down. This creates a sense that they are absorbed in each other and in what they are doing.
In 1890 Mary Cassatt visited an exhibition of Japanese prints. After this she made several prints of her own, but the visit also influenced how she painted. In particular she was interested in the woodcut prints of the artist Kitagawa Utamaro. You can see one of his prints opposite. In The Bath the influence of Japanese prints can be seen in the mix of patterns, and the colors are similar.
Cassatt uses a mixture of patterns in this painting to create interest. The floral design on the furniture and wallpaper at the top of the painting are loosely painted to give a feeling of distance, while the carpet is more detailed. The stripes of the mother’s dress contrast with these floral patterns, and cut through the middle of the painting, bringing our attention back to the figures.
Mary Cassatt also used repetition to connect parts of the picture: the colors of the water bowl echo the colors of the mother’s dress, and the shape of the jug handle is echoed somewhere else in the painting. Can you see where that is? Take the quiz at the end of the article to see if you are correct!
Girl Arranging Her Hair
Degas and Cassatt have an argument
Although Cassatt and Degas were good friends, he was sometimes very critical of her, saying that women knew nothing about style. Cassatt wanted to prove him wrong. She chose a model she thought was ugly, and painted her in an ordinary scene, arranging her hair before going to bed. The girl wears a plain nightdress and her face has a vacant expression. Behind her are a 19th century washing bowl and a jug. With the painting Girl Arranging Her Hair Cassatt wanted to prove that she could take an ordinary subject and make a beautiful painting.
And did Mary win over her friend? You bet.
“What drawing!” he said. “What style!” He kept the painting until he died.
Some more information about Cassatt's life
In 1882, Mary's sister Lydia died, and for a while Mary was too upset to work.
In 1886 Cassatt took part in the last Impressionist exhibition in France and the first Impressionist exhibition in New York.
In 1891 she had her first solo exhibition.
In 1892 she was asked to paint a mural on the theme of “Modern Woman” for the World Fair in Chicago.
In 1895 she had her first solo exhibition in the United States. That same year her mother died.
Young Mother Sewing
The painting opposite, Young Mother Sewing, is one that Cassatt painted in 1900.
1n 1904 she received a French honour: Légion d'honneur.
Her last visit to America was in 1908 - 9.
In 1910 she took a trip to Egypt with her brother Gardner. He became ill and died, and Mary was too upset to work for some time.
In 1912 the French writer Archille Segard wrote a book about her life.
In 1914 she received a Gold Medal of Honor from Pennsylvania Academy.
By 1915 her eyesight was too poor for her to paint. She helped organise an exhibition of her own and Degas' work to raise money in support of movement for votes for women (women's suffrage.)
In 1926 Mary Cassatt died.
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