Mary Cassatt Brings the Joy of Motherhood to Life
Who Was Mary Cassatt?
Mary Cassatt was an American Impressionist painter and printmaker. Although she is best known for her beautiful and touching paintings of mothers with their children, Mary Cassatt never married or had children. Perhaps her fascination with the maternal relationship stemmed from her own family ties. Mary was close to her parents, her brothers and sisters, and her nieces and nephews her entire life. She lived much of her adult life in France where she exhibited at the Salon and with the Impressionists.
Mother and Child in Art
In the history of art, the topic of mother and child has been one of the most popular and enduring themes. In Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art, the subjects are usually Mary and Jesus.
The Dutch artists who painted during the Dutch Golden Age steered away from religious themes and, like Cassatt, placed mothers and children in domestic scenes. Many of these paintings depict indoor scenes and are somewhat dark, but at times, the Dutch artists foreshadow the lighter hues and motherly love that Cassatt would later make so famous.
During the Romantic era, the child was often placed in nature and in stories from mythology. These paintings have a sentimentality that could be compared to Cassatt’s later work. According to her biographer, Nancy Mowll Mathews, Cassatt avoided sentimentality until the 1900s when she was trying to attract more American buyers. (Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.)
Cassatt paintings show women, children, gardens, and many other topics, but her main subject was mother and child. Unlike the Romantics, Cassatt focused on the faces of the mother and her child, and unlike the Dutch masters, Cassatt avoided the dark scenery often found in their work. According to Marjorie Shelley, a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cassatt was “one of the most inventive practitioners of Impressionism in many media, and not least in pastel, a newly popular medium in the late nineteenth century.”
Mary Cassatt Self-Portrait
Cassatt rarely painted herself. Her self-portrait in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery was painted around 1880 and is one of the few self-portraits she ever painted. Indeed, Mary made a statement by focusing her gaze away from herself and instead on families, mothers, children, and her own sisters, brothers, and their families.
It may seem strange to associate Cassatt with feminism, as so many of her paintings show women in a traditional role of caring for children. However, this choice of subject matter was a bold, feminist statement. Her decision to show only women, with no men present, is a feminist statement, as is her decision to show women caring for children, rather than posing seductively for a male artist. She also shuns the religious and allegorical themes from previous art periods, and displays women going about their daily lives. Her paintings of women with their children, or at the opera, or having afternoon tea, illustrate her view that women’s activities are as important as men’s activities.
Mary Cassatt never married. She never had children. She had a successful career that made her enough money to buy a château later in life. She was a feminist, and she inspires modern-day feminists.
Cassatt chose to study art and become an artist at a time when marriage would have been the more expected path. She was friends with other career women, such as Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond. She supported the suffragettes. In 1915, she showed her work at an exhibition that her friend and avowed feminist, Louisine Havemeyer, organized to raise money for the suffragette movement.
The exhibition that Havemeyer organized to support the suffragette movement caused a breach between Mary and her sister-in-law, Eugenie Carter Cassatt. Eugenie opposed suffragism and boycotted the show. Mary responded by selling off her work that was otherwise destined for her heirs. She sold The Boating Party, thought to have been inspired by the birth of Eugenie’s daughter Ellen Mary, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Mary Cassatt Biography
Mary Cassatt was born into a large family. One of seven children, she was born May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh’s North Side. Thanks to her family’s wealth, European travel was an important part of Cassatt’s education. In the 1850s, she spent five years in Europe and visited world-class cities like London, Berlin, and Paris. She moved to Paris in 1866, along with her mother and some family friends. A young woman traveling alone during the mid-1800s would have been quite a scandal! So Mary accepted her chaperones as long as they didn’t get in the way of her art studies.
Mary returned to the United States in 1870 just as the Franco-Prussian War was starting, but returned to Europe in 1871. Her first major art showing was at the Salon of 1872. She was invited back to the Salon for the four years that followed.
In 1877, her parents and sister, Lydia, joined her in Paris where they shared a living space. That year, her career suffered, though, when both her entries to the Salon were rejected. However, at this low point in her career, Edgar Degas invited her to show her works with the Impressionists, a group that had begun their own series of independent exhibitions in 1874. She accepted Degas’ invitation with enthusiasm, and began preparing paintings for the next Impressionist show which took place on April 10, 1879. She joined the Impressionist Exhibition again for shows in 1880 and 1881, and in 1886, provided two paintings for the first Impressionist exhibition in the US.
The main theme of her later period is mothers caring for small children, for example, The Child’s Bath (1893) and Mother and Child (Baby Getting Up from His Nap) (c. 1899).
Later Life and Legacy
Mary Cassatt remained close to her family throughout her life, especially her brother, Alexander Cassatt, who was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. She was shaken by his death in 1906 and produced fewer paintings after his death. In 1910 she took a trip to Egypt with her brother, Gardner, and his family. The trip exhausted Mary and sickened her brother. Upon their return to Paris, Gardner died. One of Cassatt’s first works of art depicting the mother-and-child theme had been a drypoint print of her sister-and-law, Gardner’s wife Eugenie Carter Cassatt, holding her son, also named Gardner.
In 1894, Mary purchased a château outside Paris and began to split her time between her country home and Paris. She was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia, and cataracts in 1911, and after 1914, she was forced to stop painting as she became almost blind. She died in 1926 at the age of 82.
Although Mary never had children of her own, watching her extended family grow seems to have inspired her. Choosing not to marry was a brave, feminist statement for her time, but, as has been proven over and over again, family love comes in many forms.
Her legacy of painting the love shared in families has inspired many artists and art fans. What could be more important than family love? One of our favorite Cassatt paintings is of Mrs. Cassatt (Mary’s mother) reading to Mary’s nieces and nephews.