Mary Cassatt - Transcending the Old WorldThe female presence amongst the ranks of great artists is abysmally thin. In the last hundred years or so, only the names of Berthe Morisot, Georgia O'Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mary Cassatt stand out from the legions of their male counterparts. Morisot was of the Old World, a world in which many women were taught art but few excelled at it. O'Keeffe and Frankenthaler were women of a New World, trailblazing a path for the thousands of women artists today. Mary Cassatt, however, does not fit neatly into either of these moulds. She was born in the Old World, but transcended it to be a leading force to be reckoned with in shaping the New World order of art to which O'Keeffe and Frankenthaler were heirs.
Born near Pittsburgh in 1844, Mary Cassatt studied art for four years during the Civil War at the Pennsylvania Academy. Feeling stifled at the then predominant learning mode in which artists (especially female artists) drew almost exclusively from plaster casts, shortly after the war, she fled to Europe and Paris in search of a freer, more accepting climate in which to learn and practice her art. She was just in time to grab the train to Impressionism with fellow-passenger and best friend Edgar Degas. Though both displayed with this group of groundbreaking artists, neither of them were die-hard Impressionists. What they shared with the Impressionists was a quiet disdain for the high and mighty "official" subject matter of Academic art.
Like Degas, Cassatt preferred the mundane over the exulted. She especially liked exploring the relationship between mothers and their children. Her 1891-92 painting entitled The Bath is more about motherhood than anything ever conceived by Whistler or Hallmark. There is warmth and love without sentimentality. There is freshness without Impressionist colour saturation. There is beauty without prettiness. Her work is feminine without being delicate or fussy. Beyond her painting, in this century, Cassatt was instrumental in introducing some of her wealthy American friends to the works of artists such as Courbet, Manet, Monet, and Degas for their collections. Late in life, she developed cataracts and had to abandon painting, but apart from her own work, her most lasting impact upon art may well have been the bridges she built between the French avant-garde artists she knew and loved and those from her own country that would make their art mainstream. She died at her country home outside Paris in 1926. She was 82.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
2 May 1998