Mary Cassatt, a thoroughly "Modern Millie" of Her Time!

By Marjorie Cohen in collaboration with Linda Miller
Mary Cassatt, a Self-Portrait
Mary Cassatt, a Self-Portrait

On September 22, 2012, a group of 30 WWHP members gathered together at the Worcester Art Museum to enjoy a presentation by docent Linda Miller about the 19th century American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

Mary Cassatt was born in Alleghany City, Pennsylvania, on May 22, 1844, to wealthy parents. Her father was a banker and stockbroker. Her family traveled Europe when she was seven to eleven years old, especially France and Germany. She had the opportunity to visit museums with her parents and became interested in art. The museums of Paris especially inspired her. She realized that she was interested in learning more about art and wanted to attend schools that would teach her the many skills she needed to learn the techniques to develop her own style and subject matter.

When her family returned to America, Mary enrolled in classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia where she studied for three years. This choice was not one made by most of Mary's wealthy contemporaries who chose instead to marry and have children. After three years at the Academy, Mary wished to go back to Paris and to travel in Europe where she might study the great masterpieces of art from the past. Her father declared that if she pursued this path she should never again "darken his door." Her mother, on the other hand, was very supportive of her desire to return to Europe. In fact, when Mary decided to return to Paris to pursue her art, her mother joined her. During the time she lived in Europe, Cassatt was accompanied by her mother and/or friends. As she studied to perfect her art, she worked with fellow Impressionist Edgar Degas, who became her mentor and friend.

Cassatt painted many works of art using her mother, brother Robert, and other family members as models. She also used other women and children, from the village where she summered, over and over again as her models. Since she wanted to show women at their daily tasks and have them appear to contemplate and reflect on their daily lives, she had her subjects look out or away from the viewer’s eye.

Cassatt was truly an independent woman. It is interesting to note that she eventually won her father’s approval when he realized she had so much talent, many followers, and was selling her paintings. Eventually Mary's father joined her, her mother, and sister Lydia in Paris and lived there for the rest of his life. He was proud when her art was finally accepted by the judges of the French Salon.

In addition to her exceptional artistic abilities, Mary Cassatt was a very strong and capable woman. She neither married nor had children. In the early part of the 20th century, Mary became interested in the American Women's Suffrage Movement. She contributed her art to major exhibits in New York City in support of Women's Suffrage. She lived to see the ratification in 1920 of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. Mary lived to be 82 years of age.

Mary also filled the important role of consultant to wealthy Americans who came to Paris and wished to purchase art. She encouraged them to purchase Impressionist Art. Some of these wealthy Americans left their collections of Impressionist Art, including works by Cassatt, to major American museums. Consequently, we can thank Mary Cas-satt for the rich collections of French Impressionism and her own American Impressionism in American art museums.

Linda Miller gave us a fascinating and enjoyable insight into Cassatt’s life through her art. Victoria Aberhart assisted with passing around many prints of Cassatt’s works showing the development of her style and artistic methods.

Following a wonderful lunch in the Museum Café, our group was divided in two for "Woman as Artist, Woman as Subject" tours conducted by Linda Miller and her friend WAM docent Victoria Aberhart. Cassatt’s works are much sought after and admired by many individuals and museum collections in the USA and Europe. As she was especially well known for her works of mother and child subjects, we were fortunate to be able to view and appreciate her "Mother and Child" painting in one of the Museum’s galleries.

Thank you to everyone who arranged for this event and, of course, to docents and WWHP members Linda Miller and Victoria Aberhart for their very informative and well-presented account of an artist who demonstrated much courage and determination in her work and advocacy of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Published Date: 
September 22, 2012