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Mary Cassatt was one of those 19th Century painters who, for the most part, spent their lives in Europe and painted with a European flavor and yet is still regarded as an American artist. I’ve always had some difficulty getting my head around this (and have written so in posts before, here and here and maybe a few other places, too) – her art experience, her style, her influences, they were all distinctly European, so why do we still claim her as one of our own? She left America because she wasn’t taken seriously as an artist here simply because of her gender, eventually settled in Paris, and was never again more than a visitor on her native soil.

Cassatt was deeply involved with the development of Impressionism in France and a close associate of Edgar Degas, although she ventured far from the tenets of Impressionism later in her career. Her most recognizable work involves women and children, but her treatment of the subject shows a good deal more depth and introspection than what’s typical of the heartwarming genre scenes that first spring to mind. Her portraits, mostly of women, have an air of mystery about them. Her sitters rarely makes direct eye contact with the viewer as if concealing some deeply held secret. Much different from the fixed gaze typical of portraiture at the time.

Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun (Mary Cassatt, 1914)

She was fond of painting women and children engaged in the act of doing something; reading, bathing, breastfeeding, sewing, sitting in a theater box. She loved simple scenes of people in the act of daily living and didn’t clutter her images with a lot of histrionics. I enjoy her work a great deal, appreciating especially the way she keeps a subtle separation between us and the people she painted. We’re never acknowledged by her subjects; their lives are going on without any hint of our presence, we’re allowed just a glimpse of their reality.

For me, the very best of Cassatt’s work is wrapped up very neatly in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. Here we have a little girl’s private moment, lounging in a posture most “unladylike” for the 1870s, her sleepy little dog her only companion and not an adult in sight. We’re expected to want to see this girl smiling for us with the dog in her lap, but Cassatt’s gift to us is a moment borrowed from a real life. We’ve all been this child, drifting along on that current of youth, maybe bored out of our minds, maybe lost in a dreamy fantasy.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (Mary Cassatt, 1878)

Beyond her paintings, Cassatt was instrumental in introducing Impressionist art to America by encouraging her friends and family to buy paintings from her friends in Paris (many of these painting have since found their way into the collections of major American museums). She also served as inspiration and mentor to young American artist studying in Paris. Forced to end her painting career due to illness in 1914, she became active in the Women’s Suffrage movement. She died in 1926 and lies in a cemetery in rural northern France.

 

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