The families of Robert and Katherine Cassatt had been American pioneers for generations before the two married, but the newlyweds, unlike their forebearers had something different in mind. As members of Pennsylvania's upper class they moved freely throughout the state at will. They belonged to the best establishments, moved in the highest social circles, and made sure that their children were educated by the best governesses, tutors, and private schools available. They had it all, but they wanted more, and what they wanted was to travel Europe, to mingle with its upper class, and to expose their children to the culture they felt was missing in their homeland.
The Cassatt's had seven children. Sadly, two didn't survive infancy. It must have been difficult to later lose another, a daughter named Mary, to the country of France. Mary fell in love during the journey she began at the age of seven, a journey she took with her family. She loved to travel; she loved to tour the galleries and museums they frequented, but most of all she came to love Paris and all of the art that came with it. Mary could have had anything her heart desired, but what she wanted was something that her parents couldn't give her. What she wanted was to paint, to become an artist, to make a living and to independently support herself. She was in essence a rebel. "Ladies" didn't support themselves, they did not become artists, nor did they leave home to study art in foreign countries, but Mary did, and because she did we have been blessed with some of the most beautiful art ever created. Mary Cassatt lived in France for a large portion of her life, but she was an American artist, and I believe she's done us proud.
Wandering With Purpose
Can you imagine living at a time when freethinking, financially able parents had the opportunity to model their belief that the education and experiences gained through travel were just as important as formal education? That travel itself was seen as an integral key to obtaining knowledge, and as important as opening a book? My parents were firm believers in family travel; they believed in the importance of our time spent together; they believed in exposing my brother and I to as many things as possible, and they believed that those things broadened the horizons of what would otherwise have been a very small world, but they believed this during the summer.
I too am guilty of the "experience bug," but unlike my parents I took the opportunites when they came and tended to travel sporadically. The many places I've been with my children were not vacations, they were events, and they were excuses; I got to travel because my son plays hockey. He's twenty now, and he's still my excuse.
What I called "family field trips," were a regular occurrence during the years I raised my children. Art and Museum exhibits, the yearly dog show, the Botanical Gardens, and yes, the zoo; they call to me regularly and I find them irresistible. My children were marked absent more than once during their years in grade school for the "family field trip." I believe in exposing children to readily available culture; we may not be able to travel Europe; we may not even be able to travel across the country we live in, but we can experience the many things found within our own states, our own cities, and even our own neighborhoods. Note, that I never lied to their teachers, never claimed they were sick, or that I couldn't schedule the "appointment" for another time. I told the truth, and their absences were marked as unexcused, but I wouldn't trade even one of those trips for a perfect attendance award; I'll take the memories.
The Cassatts' family field trip took place over a five year span during which the family made their way through Europe, stopping to visit many of its capitals along the way. London, Paris, and Berlin were favorite destinations, and at some point during their travels both Germany and France were called home. Mary loved her time in Europe, and during the periods that the family settled down she was kept busy with lessons in drawing and music, in addition to acquiring proficiency in both the German and French languages
Upon their return, Mary was enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her enrollment was considered whimsical, and her family supported her desire to attend as if it were a hobby, a simple indulgence to a much loved child. Soon, her family would understand that her whims would not be so easily overlooked, that art was not just a hobby to their daughter, it was a way of life.
The Birth of an Artist
Mary spent four years studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; a time that must have been quite the escape for a young girl living in a country torn a part by war; the Civil War.
Mary's war was quite another thing. Although her days were filled with the joy of creativity, her homelife was in itself a battle. Her parents were concerned about what seemed to be Mary's constant exposure to feminist ideas; they abhored the bohemian behavior of the friends (male) she made at school, and they were worried about the male to female ratio of the academy's students. The academy's enrollment was only twenty percent female. Needless to say, her aspirations weren't embraced, and her relationship with her father became strained, but eventually Daddy's girl got her way. Speaking from experience, the poor man never had a chance!
Her move to Paris was inevitable, and in 1866 her father finally caved in and supported her move across the ocean. Her mother accompanied her, as her chaperone.
Once in Paris, Mary found that things weren't going to be quite as easy as she'd imagined. Unable to attend the esteemed Ecole de Beaux-Arts because she was a woman, Mary was forced to take private lessons from the school's masters, but these lessons weren't a given as a student had to both apply and be accepted by the masters individually.
Her acceptance to study with the renown, Jean-Leon Gerome was a dream come true, and Mary, although thrilled to be studying under his guidance enhanced her training by doing copy work at the Louvre. Copying was popular amongst women as it enabled them to make a few dollars with their art; it also required a permit.
For two years, Mary studied with some of the world's most respected artists; Gerome, Chaplin, and Couture to name a few. She traveled the countryside for inspiration, honed the skill of drawing from life, and she continued to embrace the traditional style of her mentors. Change was on the horizon, and the art world was becoming what Cassatt's best friend Eliza Haldeman would describe as, "artists are leaving the Academy style and each seeking a new way, consequently just now everything is Chaos." But finally, in 1872, after numerous submissions of her paintings, A Mandolin Player, was accepted by the selection jury for the Paris Salon. She had fulfilled yet another aspiration.
Cassatt spent much of her time in Paris, but she also indulged in long absences during which she traveled around Europe; visiting and studying in places like Parma, Rome and Seville. Her style of painting was traditional, but it was also daring, and most of her paintings from this time period were slightly adveturesome for a woman, but Cassatt wasn't just any woman.
The subject of her art was far from serious, and her depictions were those of women flirting (uh oh), tossing flowers, and even sitting down to share a glass of refreshment with a dangerous bullfighter. Traveling provided revelations in regards to subject matter, and although she continued to travel she finally made Paris her official home in 1874.
1874, was also the year that Mary Cassatt began a relationship that would last a lifetime. One day, while perusing a gallery window she stopped dead in her tracks to take in the sight of one of the most beautiful paintings she'd ever seen. It was a painting of dancers, ballet dancers to be precise, all aglow in bold pastels; she was smitten. The artist was Edgar Degas, and she described her introduction to both his work and the art of impressionism in this way, "I saw art as I wanted to see it. I began to live."
Later that year, Degas saw one of Mary's entries at the French Academy Salon, and as entranced as she'd been by his dancers, he was duly taken with her work as well. His invitation that she join the impressionists was not only an honor she didn't refuse; it was a challenge she couldn't resist. Cassatt was disenchanted with the salon; she needed a change, and this group of unconventional rebels would give her both. Mary Cassatt was the only American whose work would appear alongside those of Degas, Monet, Morisot, and Pissarro during Impressionist exhibitions shown between the years of 1879 to 1886, better yet, she was an American woman.
Mothers and Children
Cassatt's early work in impressionism addressed the world of the "ordinary" woman. Her subjects weren't poor and they weren't rich; they were simply the middle class women that most people could relate to. Ordinary, everyday activities were stressed; a visit to the theatre, sitting in the garden, tea with friends, the task of sewing, or the indulgence of simply reading a book, even better a newspaper.
Later, in the 1890's her work becomes more symbolic; she wishes to send a message, make a statement, and she does, beautifully. Never married, Cassatt became fascinated by things she'd never experienced and an advocate of childcare. Her painting focused on children, babies, the love and warmth between a mother and child; the necessity of a mother's all knowing eyes. The innocence of her art captured the tenderness and intimacy of motherhood, something she would never experience, but something she held with utmost respect. It amazes me that Cassatt more often than not chose models for her depictions, but who am I to be amazed? Her depictions are heartwarming.