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Mary Cassatt, "Summertime", 1894-95, © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

Two events triggered Cassatt’s transformation into an artist with an unusually beguiling vision. One was the rejection of two of her entries by the Paris Salon jury in 1877. The other was the suggestion by Edgar Degas, a man who greatly admired her work, that she exhibit with him and his friends at the now annual exhibition of the “Independents” — who were also known as “Impressionists” (a word Degas detested, and never used of himself).

Cassatt said that her encounter with Degas’ art “changed my life”. His pictures were “art as I wanted to see it”. She became a fully fledged member of the “Independents/Impressionists”, and contributed 12 pictures in the new style to the group’s next exhibition, which ended up being delayed until the spring of 1879.

It was an audacious move. The Impressionists were admittedly starting to gain a degree of acceptance, but they were still very much on the fringes of the Parisian art world, and their style was thought rough and unsophisticated, lacking the smooth finish then thought to be essential to good painting. The Impressionists’ subject matter — daily life rather than mythological or religious topics — was widely thought to be incompatible with great or even merely beautiful art. One American critic reviewing the Impressionist exhibition said he “felt sorry for Mary Cassatt . . . She has had her place in the Salon — a great triumph for a woman and a foreigner. Why has she gone astray?” Another thought that every single one of the Impressionists was “afflicted with a hitherto unknown disease of the eye” — a comment demonstrating all the perceptiveness and taste of the Italian composer Giuseppi Sarti, who said on hearing the first performance of the Dissonance quartet: “It is composed by a certain Mozart, whom I do not know and do not wish to know — he is merely a keyboard player with an abominable ear.”

Cassatt nevertheless took to the new style immediately, and her distinction was apparent even to the critics who deplored what they called Impressionism’s “pretentious show of window-dressing and infantile daubing”. Cassatt and Degas were thought to be “the only artists who distinguish themselves” in the exhibition. Monet also exhibited many pictures in it. All of his works were subject to a degree of vituperative abuse that was far worse than anything that Cassatt ever received.

Cassatt and Degas worked very closely together. His studio was only five minutes’ walk away from hers, and each was a regular visitor to the other’s workplace. Degas rated her draughtsmanship very highly, and he may have helped to liberate her from some of the constraints of her academic training, while also showing her how, when painting in the new style, to retain the elements of a fundamentally classical technique. He seems to have had an important role in the creation of one her finest, and earliest, Impressionist pictures: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. According to the curators of the exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André, X-ray analysis of that picture has shown that Degas helped Cassatt with the under-drawing.
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May 30th, 2018
5:05 PM
All very true and informative. Our Royal Academy hasn`t invited Akiane Kramarik or Stella Vine (see websites) to exhibit yet. Akiane is showing in Australia and Stella at Alnwick Museum in January. Their work wipes the floor with that of the RA`s.

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