Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

“How well I remember nearly forty years ago seeing for the first time Degas’ pastels in the window of a picture dealer in the Boulevard Haussmann. I would go there and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” – Mary Cassatt to her friend Louisine Havemeyer in 1915 (Sixteen to Sixty, New York, 1993, p. 275) Mary Cassatt was the only American artist to join the French Impressionist group in Paris, and she did so in 1877 at the invitation of her friend Edgar Degas. Cassatt particularly admired Degas’ work in the pastel medium and his constructive criticism and continual efforts to introduce her to new techniques had a lasting effect on Cassatt’s mature style. Like Degas, Cassatt became increasingly obsessed with the pastel medium and toward the end of her career it became her primary medium and means of expression. Pastel allowed Cassatt to demonstrate her skill with draftsmanship while displaying a rich layering of color and tone. However, she also was a highly skilled draftsman and painter in oil. Cassatt began her studies of mother and children in 1880, often using young country women who lived near her chateau at Mesnil-Therbis, Oise, as her models. The artist became most comfortable with this motif, and it became her primary subject matter. Mothers and children attracted Cassatt partly because of their strong tradition in Western art, rooted in images of the Madonna and child, as well as the relationship’s connection to the essence of life itself. As Nancy M. Mathews writes in her book on the artist: “Once Cassatt had incorporated the mother and child theme into her oeuvre, she tended to treat it in a serial manner … This serial approach came naturally to her, since it had long been her habit to derive a number of compositional schemes from working with particular models and then to develop these into full-scale paintings, pastels and prints.” Cassatt’s emphasis on transcendent, human emotion – rather than the manners and fashions of contemporary Belle-Epoque life – distinguished her work from that of her Impressionist peers.

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