I like the image this self-portrait conveys. Mary Cassatt looks reserved, alert, self-contained. It is not a sentimental picture, any more than are the pictures of mothers and children she became famous for. In those she caught and portrayed the connections between adults and children with honesty and love and without affectation, and she shows herself without affectation here.
But then a sentimental approach to life would not have helped her pursue her desire to be a professional artist. She needed desire, strength, stubbornness and a faith in her own abilities. How else could she overcome her family’s objections and the obstacles she faced at a time when women could study art as a hobby, but were not expected to become professional artists?
In her early twenties she chose to move from Pennsylvania to Paris to study art. The Ecole des Beaux Arts did not allow women in their classes, so she had to apply to study privately with teachers who taught there. Since she was determined to study art she applied, she studied, she went daily to the Louvre to copy paintings, she painted from life when she went on trips to the countryside. She worked hard. In spite of, or maybe because of, the way she had to learn her work began to draw favorable notice.
The Franco-Prussian War sent her home to the United States, but not to stay. When she returned to Europe it was with a commission from the Archbishop of Pittsburgh to paint two copies of Caravaggio paintings in Parma, Italy. That accomplished, she traveled to Madrid and Seville where she painted scenes of Spanish life.
In 1874 she decided to go and live in France. She shared an apartment with her sister Lydia, whom she frequently used as a model. She became a member of the Impressionists and found a friend in the other female member, Berthe Morisot. But the times were such that, member of the group of not, she could not meet the men in the group in the cafes that were their usual haunts to join their discussions of art and life. Friendships had to be developed and maintained away from such compromising places.
Perhaps being part of and yet not completely in the group is one reason her work seems independently, uniquely hers. Then after 1886 she no longer considered herself part of any one art movement – instead she went on to experiment with a variety of techniques, including work inspired by seeing a show of Japanese masters in Paris.
So it is not surprising that she kept painting until near-blindness forced her to stop. Until then she shared her view of life in her paintings. It was a strong woman’s view of life, observed and portrayed with honesty and compassion.
You can enjoy more of her work below.
Images of paintings courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; video created by cjmcqueen.