Mary Cassatt: the feminine feminist

The magnificent exhibition of Mary Cassatt’s work currently on show in Paris demonstrates her clearly feminine sensibility and staggering skill

Here is Mary Cassatt speaking about her own painting: “To us the sweetness of childhood, the charm of womanhood. If I have not conveyed some sense of that charm — in a word if I have not been absolutely feminine — then I have failed.”

Mary Cassatt is often celebrated today as a “feminist painter”. But her own conception of her painting as “absolutely feminine” sits oddly with today’s conception of feminism, which does not emphasise “the charm of womanhood”, still less “the sweetness of childhood” (and by implication, the sweetness of a life spent looking after small children) as essential elements of feminist doctrine.

But Cassatt saw no tension at all between painting pictures of mothers and babies, as she did almost exclusively in the latter part of her career, and being a committed feminist. To her, feminism was of course a matter of women getting the vote, of having equal educational opportunities to men, and of women not facing formal bars to advancing their careers (such as having to quit when they married). But it also required recognition of the equal value of what Cassatt, in common with just about all of her contemporaries, thought was the essentially feminine task of child-raising. Her commitment to the idea that women were of equal value to men was enough to get her denounced by one American critic as “an advanced woman . . . of the kind that wears mannish clothes, talks loudly and with easy disdain for the male sex; in her art, she is masculine and almost bizarre”.

The magnificent exhibition of Mary Cassatt’s work currently on show at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris demonstrates just how perverse that critic’s judgment was. A clearly feminine sensibility shines through almost everything she made. Her subjects, far from being bizarre, are utterly quotidian: mothers and babies, women getting dressed, children resting or playing, women having cups of tea.

Her purely technical skill is staggering — not just in her oil paintings, but in her pastels, prints and etchings. Very few artists have ever managed to acquire the ability to represent the human form in three-dimensional space as accurately, as gracefully, and as apparently effortlessly as she could.

In reality it was not at all effortless. It was the fruit of many years of relentless work. She started learning drawing at 16, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Born into a wealthy family, she had already been to Europe with her parents, and acquired fluency in French and German. She felt the teaching in Philadelphia was poor, and she longed to return to France — the only place where she thought she could learn anything that would help her with her art. So by 1866, when she was 22, and in spite of the objections of her father, who did not want her to become an artist, she was back in Paris.

Mary Cassatt, “By omnibus (or interior of a tram passing over a bridge)”, c. 1890-1891, Bibliothèque nationale de France, photo © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF

As a woman, Mary Cassatt was not allowed to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. Taking their cue from that prohibition, contemporary art historians have made much of  the way that anti-woman prejudice and sexism impeded Cassatt’s career. But it is actually not clear at all that, at least artistically, she suffered seriously from male sexism. Yes, she was barred from taking classes at the Beaux Arts. But so were her male American counterparts: the Academy was for French citizens only.  She could take private classes with the instructors from the Beaux Arts — and she did. The only barriers to that were having enough skill to persuade an instructor to take you on, and enough money to pay his fees. Mary Cassatt easily qualified on both counts, and she took lessons from (among others) the Beaux Arts professor Jean-Léon Gérôme.

She couldn’t attend classes where there were nude male models — but she could draw them when they appeared with their underpants on. Did that restriction hinder her development as an artist? If it did, it is not easy to see exactly how. She seemed to have no great interest in drawing or painting naked men. They would not certainly be a significant part of her artistic output — or indeed any part of it at all. Throughout her career, she only rarely painted clothed men. In all her paintings in the exhibition, there is only one which depicts a man: a portrait of her brother and his young son. She never painted nude men. It requires an unusually bizarre form of phallocentrism to think that this limited her as an artist.

The first painting she submitted to the Paris Salon — The Mandolin Player, in 1868 — was accepted by the all-male jury that decided which pictures would be exhibited. Most male artists, including some of the most distinguished ones, had to try several times before a work of theirs was shown at the Paris Salon, and some, such as Van Gogh, never succeeded in getting a picture past the selection panel. But the Salon accepted the pictures Mary Cassatt submitted for its consideration regularly for the next nine years.

Looking at some of her Salon pictures now, you are struck by the realisation that if they had been the only art she had created, she would certainly not be remembered today as a major painter. They are essentially extremely competent imitations of the sort of canvases produced by Italian artists from the first half of the 17th century, such as Domenichino, Guercino and Guido Reni when they were painting non-religious subjects. But they are nothing more than that. And many of her contemporaries were able to produce competent imitations of 17th-century Italian painters.

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.

Mary Cassatt, “Woman bathing”, 1890-1891, private collection © Courtesy Marc Rosen Fine Art and Adelson Galleries, New York

Whatever the truth of that particular matter, there is no doubt that Degas exercised a lasting and profound influence on her. They also seem to have been very good friends, which is surprising, considering what an odious human being Degas could be. He was unsparing in his bitter and often staggeringly insensitive criticism of other artists; his political views were those of an extreme reactionary — in particular, he seems to have been opposed to any measure that would give women social and political equality with men; and he was an anti-Semite of a very unpleasant kind, a supporter of the anti-Dreyfus cause, breaking with friends when he discovered they had Jewish ancestry, and asking his models if they were Jewish and dismissing them if they said they were.

Cassatt was somehow able to overlook those sides of Degas’ character. The only major breach between the two of them happened when he had enlisted her support in creating a new magazine which would showcase their etchings: she created a number of them specially for the magazine — and then Degas abruptly dropped the whole project. But the breach did not last long, and they supported each other until Degas died in 1917. Cassatt helped to establish Degas’ reputation in America: she was far better known in the US than he was until the 1920s.

Cassatt was certainly on the receiving end of some crass and exceptionally stupid sexist criticism (although not from Degas, who thought her one of the best artists of the 19th century). But it doesn’t seem to have had much effect, either on her or on her reputation. Most of the writing about her in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th consisted in praise for her skill. Although her family’s wealth meant she was never in the position of needing to sell her art in order to avoid penury (as Monet and Van Gogh were), she wanted to be financially independent through success at her chosen profession, and she achieved that goal. She was taken up by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who organised several one-woman shows for her, including two in Paris and two in New York. Her paintings sold well enough for her to be able to buy a large 17th-century chateau outside Paris with her earnings.

Mary Cassatt never married. Degas was her closest male friend, but there is no evidence that they were ever lovers. For each of them, their art was probably far more important than any personal relationship.

Cassatt was also well aware that if she married, she would almost certainly have to sacrifice her own career as an artist. She had seen what had happened to Marie Bracquemond, a painter who is now almost completely forgotten, but who was identified, along with Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, as one of the “three grande dames of Impressionism”. (Bracquemond first exhibited with the Impressionists in the same exhibition in 1879 as Cassatt.) Marie Bracquemond’s husband was also an artist: they had first met copying in the Louvre. But he turned out to be extremely hostile to his wife’s working: he wanted her to devote herself to him and to looking after their son. In 1890, when she was 50, she finally gave up struggling with her husband and stopped painting. If there was one thing of which Mary Cassatt seems to have been certain, it was that she would never allow herself to end up in Bracquemond’s position.

Mary Cassatt, “Feeding the ducks”, circa 1895, collections Jacques Doucet © Bibliothèque de l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art

So although she painted children with extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy, Cassatt never had any children herself. It is instructive to compare her very tender and intimate paintings of mothers and babies with Berthe Morisot’s painting of the same subject. Morisot married Eduard Manet’s brother and had a daughter with him. She painted her child as a baby — but not with herself. Instead,  she painted her daughter with the nanny.

The absence of domestic servants in Cassatt’s pictures is striking, because mothers belonging to the prosperous classes that Cassatt’s models came from did not do much childcare themselves. It would have been much truer to day-to-day reality to show those babies with their nannies, as Morisot did.

Cassatt’s decision not to do so may have had a commercial basis: paintings of servants and babies would probably not sell in the same way to those babies’ mothers, who were Cassatt’s clients. There may also have been a political element to that choice: Cassatt may have been trying to emphasise the importance of the mother-child bond, and the value of mothers, rather than nannies, looking after their own children. That bond was an essential part of “the sweetness of childhood . . . the charm of womanhood”. But Cassatt seems to have been aware that it was not natural in the sense of being inevitable: wealthy mothers needed to be encouraged not to contract out motherhood to paid help.

When Mary Cassatt died in 1926, she had not painted a picture for more than a decade. By the end of 1914 her eyesight had deteriorated to such an extent that it was impossible for her to see even large objects clearly, let alone draw them accurately.

She wasn’t sure whether any of her pictures was good enough to survive the test of time. Her response to anyone who said her work that would pass that test was: “Who knows?” The exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André demonstrates that we now have the answer to that question. It is a glorious testament to the enduring power of her art.

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