MARY (1844 - 1926)
was Mary Cassatt?
on May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now a part
of Pittsburgh), Mary Cassatt was a remarkable woman who
succeeded in what was then a predominantly male profession.
The daughter of a wealthy investment banker, her family
was close, and she was brought up to be independent and
pursue her own interests. Cassatt lived with her family
in France and Germany, where from 1850-55 she spent long
periods of time in Paris, Heidleburg, and Darmstadt. In
1855, the Cassatts returned to Philadelphia. In 1861, at
the age of 16, Cassatt enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy
of Fine Arts to study painting
January 1, 1866, Mary Cassatt traveled to France to further
her study of painting. She eventually settled in Paris,
where she took private lessons. It was during this time
that Cassatt became aware of and interested in the work
of the Impressionists, and in particular that of Edgar Degas.
Cassatt was skilled at drawing, and she paid particular
attention to form and line in her paintings. Degas, who
was known to be blunt and caustic in his opinions towards
women, said of Cassatt, I am not willing to admit
that a woman can draw that well.
invited Cassatt to exhibit her works with the Impressionists
in 1877. She was the only American artist ever to do so.
She took part in Impressionist exhibitions on four subsequent
occasions. After the last exhibition with the Impressionists,
she began a professional affiliation with Paul Durand-Ruel
and displayed many solo exhibitions in his galleries. Cassatt
is best known for her representation of women's experience,
and had a particular focus on the relationship of mother
and child. Her work displays the private activities of women,
including knitting, reading, taking tea, and interacting
with children. In the early years, Cassatt worked primarily
in oil, but in the 1890s began to experiment with pastels
decidedly a member of the Impressionist circle, Cassatt
focused more on form and detail than did such contemporaries
as Monet, who was mainly concerned with light and atmosphere.
In fact, some of Monet's work didn't impress her at all.
She wrote, Rene went to see Monet and found him
at work on large panels of water lilies. One would have
to build a room especially for them I suppose. I must say
his Nemphes [Les Nympheas] pictures look to me like glorified
wall paper. You have some of the best work. I wont
go so far as D. who thinks he has done nothing worth doing
for 20 years, but it is certain that these decorations without
composition are not to my taste. from letter
to long-time friend Louisine Havemeyer, Sept. 8, 1918.
was witty, elegant, and while socially skilled, she loved
solitude. Typical for the day, most of her close friends
were women. She was, however, also good friends with Degas
and her male art teachers. She was avidly interested in
politics and literature and her letters contain many literary
references. She was never married, career success being
more important to her. She was plagued by serious visual
health problems in her later years that affected both her
art and quality of life. She died on June 14, 1926 in her
French Chateau at the age of 81.
visual disorders: Cataracts & diabetic retinopathy
visual problems began in 1900, at age 56. Her acuity began
to decline, and she reported her sight to be getting progressively
dimmer. In 1910, she relinquished printmaking due to these
difficulties. In 1912, at age 68, she was diagnosed with
cataracts by the famous ophthalmologist, Edmond Landolt,
M.D., who had earlier treated Degas. Unfortunately no records
survive. Cassatt visual problems were exacerbated by lack
of care, as it was difficult to find doctors to treat civilians
during WWI. By 1915, at the age of 71, Cassatt was forced
to give up her work. Cassatt was diagnosed with diabetes
around 1919 and experienced a concurrent retinopathy.
visual decline had tremendous impact on her psychological
well-being. Her problems, which she attributed to painting,
shortened her artistic career. In a letter to her good friend
Louisine Havemeyer in 1913, she wrote, I have overlooked
my bodily welfare, but I have worked so hard besides, and
nothing takes it out of one like painting. I have only to
look around me to see that, to see Degas a mere wreck, and
Renoir and Monet too. Wartime conditions also
seemed to be taking their toll. Cassatt wrote, Since
I saw you last, I have been so ill, no one thought I would
recover but I did, and then I overworked and when
the war cloud burst, I broke down under my responsibilities
& it has taken me all winter to get well again, - &
my sight is enfeebled. from letter to Theodate
Pope, June 8, 1915 (Villa Angeletto).
In 1917, Cassatt had a cataract operation on her right eye.
She subsequently experienced opacity of the posterior lens
capsule in the same eye, worsening her already diminished
sight. Cassatt dreaded the forthcoming operation on her
left eye. On May 24, 1919 she wrote, My sight is
getting dimmer every day. I find writing tires my eyes.
I look forward with horror to utter darkness and then an
operation which may end in as great a failure as the last
one. Cassatts premonitions proved correct;
poor results were obtained when the left eye was operated
on in 1919 when she was 75. Cassatt was greatly distressed;
she could not read, could not paint, and was suffering from
the effects of diabetes. It is thought that Cassatt underwent
a treatment of radium inhalations, a therapy used for many
diseases in the 19th century. The dangers of radium were
not fully known, and this type of therapy was used for treatment
of cataracts as well as diabetes.
on her work
Cassatt's visual problems forced her to switch from oils
to pastels, which are easier to work with demand less precision.
The precision of and detail in her early work is evident
in her painting of her sister Lydia (left), painted when
Cassatt was 36. Note the fine detail in the lace of Lydia's
hat and in the folds of her dress.
her visual problems advanced, the meticulous lines that
were characteristic of Cassatt's earlier works became strident,
bold strokes of color. This can be seen in her pastel of
Margot (right), done at age 58, by which time, Cassatt had
experienced visual difficulties for two years. Although
a lovely picture in its own right, in comparison to Lydia,
Margot is rendered with a more limited range of colors and
relatively little detail. In her later works, her color
range became similarly limited, and her canvases larger
to accommodate for her loss of acuity.
| Cézanne | Degas
| El Greco | Monet
| Renoir | Van