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Nice Girls Don't Become Artists
Some things never change. Although it may not be quite as likely today, for generations parents have been dismayed, even downright hostile, when their children have expressed an interest in pursuing careers as artists. "Why don't you choose something that's gonna pay a decent wage?" "Get a real job." "Art may be okay as a hobby, but you'll never earn a living at it." "You're good, but you're not that good." Sound familiar? How about, "Nice girls don't go running off to Paris to study art. You should find a good man, get married, settle down, raise some kids..." Those words, or something to that effect, were no doubt ringing in the ears of an attractive young Pennsylvania girl around 1865 shortly after she announced to her horrified parents that four years of study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia were not enough. She wanted to go to Paris and study the old masters.

Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Allegheny City--what is now known as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents weren't overly fond of her choosing art over marriage in the first place but her running off to Paris was downright scandalous. It wasn't that they couldn't afford it. They could. It was the thought of their daughter alone, in a faraway country, in a city widely known for its immoral character, and fraternising with some of the most notoriously immoral types on earth--artists. Mary got her way though, but not without some rather stiff concessions. Her mother went with her, to make sure she was properly "established," in a good home, enrolled in a reputable school, and didn't mix with the wrong kind. She began her studies in the workshop of an upstanding academic painter and apparently satisfied her mother that she would be quite all right living alone, attending classes in the morning, copying the old masters in the Louvre in the afternoon. At any rate, although not without some maternal reluctance, her mother eventually returned to this country.

Whereupon Mary immediately abandoned the structured environment of the academic workshop in favour of independent study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and especially the works of seventeenth century Old Masters such as Frans Hals, Rubens, and Velázquez, all of which is quite obvious in her early works such as The Mandolin Player of 1868 and the Musical Party of 1874. And just as her parents had feared, she fell in with the wrong crowd--the Impressionists. Edgar Degas was especially fond of her work. She considered him her mentor. In the early 1880s, perhaps to keep her in line, Mary's parents sent her younger sister to live in Paris with her. She appears in many of her paintings of the time, such as Young Woman Sewing in the Garden. Best known for her paintings of women and children, they grew out of her dislike for paying models when she could paint the household help and their children for free. Later, Mary was strongly influenced by Japanese woodcuts. In 1890, she had her first one-woman show in Paris, which was well received by the French. She was awarded their Legion d'honneur in 1904, but it wasn't until 1912 before she received any recognition in this country. It was then that she received a Gold Medal of Honour from her alma mater, now known as the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. She died in 1926 at the age of 82 proving once and for all that nice girls do study art and come to paint some very nice pictures.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
6 March 1999

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