Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)   

If I could step into a painting, it would be a painting by Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt. They are paintings that talk about women and their spaces. Plus they are very pretty.

Mary Cassatt’s parents were not only wealthy, they were also very progressive. They believed that their daughters should get a good education. And, as travel was considered an integral part of education, the family spent five years travelling around Europe. At this time, Mary visited the Paris World’s Fair of 1855 and was thus exposed to French artists such as Ingres, Courbet, Delacroix, and Corot. It was all very exciting, too exciting because, once back in the States, Mary felt restless. She would not be happy until she was back in France. But she would have to wait until the end of the Civil War. Although her father initially objected, Mary returned to Paris in 1866 with her mother acting as chaperone.

Paris may have been avant-garde compared to the U.S.A. but it was still rather retro in terms of women’s access to education. Mary, determined to study, found private tutors and in 1868 one of her paintings was accepted for the Paris Salon. Obviously Mary was pleased but she could already tell that the Salon was stuffy and stuck in the past.

At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, Mary was sent back to the States where she lived with her family. Her father was not enthused about Mary’s desire to study art. But Mary did not let her father’s objections diminish her desire to make art. Luckily, fate was her friend. A Roman Catholic bishop from Pittsburg commissioned Mary to make copies of paintings by Correggio. To do so, Mary had to go to Parma.

Sponsored by the bishop, Mary went back to Europe. After finishing her commission, she decided to stay in Europe and, in 1874, Mary moved to Paris with her sister. Degas had seen Mary’s paintings and was impressed. So, in 1877, Degas invited Mary to participate in an exhibition sponsored by the Impressionists.

Mary and Degas developed a somewhat peculiar relationship over the years. Some speculate that maybe there had been intimacy between the two but that is really difficult to believe. Degas was a misogynist with a strong interest in the Petits Rats, young girls studying ballet at the Paris Opera who were generally exploited by older wealthier men with backstage passes. As for Mary, Degas once told friends that he could marry Mary but could not in any way make love to her.

Mary and other female artists were limited in the environments they could frequent. But one place where women dominated was in the home. Impressionists looked towards daily life to find subject matter for their paintings thus giving women painters the possibility to paint scenes not previously considered art worthy.

“The Bath” by Mary Cassatt

Not having children of her own meant Mary had more time to paint. And often she chose to use that extra time to paint the children of others.

Five O’Clock Tea by mary Cassatt

Although social constraints of the time did make participating in certain activities impossible for women, afternoon tea was a typical social event for upper middle-class women. Women thus used sociability as a means of empowerment.  Mary’s painting Five O’Clock Tea documents this type social engagement. There is a feeling of compressed space and constraint making the mood somewhat ambiguous.

Another American ex-pat in Paris at the time was Abigail May Alcott, one of the Little Women. May was a talented painted but was tremendously overshadowed by her famous sister.


Related: Degas’ Art and His Curious Relationship with Women + Sexual Exploitation Was the Norm for 19th Century Ballerinas, Wealthy men turned the famous Paris Opera Ballet into a brothel + Famous Women Impressionists – Notable Female Impressionists + “Let the World Know You Are Alive”: May Alcott Nieriker and Louisa May Alcott Confront Nineteenth-Century Ideas about Women’s Genius BY LAUREN HEHMEYER

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