Historical Markers
Mary Cassatt Historical Marker
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Mary Cassatt

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Allegheny and Ridge Avenues, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
May 22, 2004

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas of a mother kissing the shoulder of her young son
Young Thomas and His Mother, by Mary Cassatt, 1893.
When Edgar Degas asked Mary Cassatt to join the "Impressionists" in 1877, at the time a discreet and small group of rebellious young modern artists that included Claude Monet, Camille Pisarro, Auguste Renoir, and female painter Berthe Morisot, he made history in two ways. Cassatt eventually became both the first and only woman, and first and only American artist, in history to be acknowledged as an equal by what soon became the foremost group of artists in the world.

Eschewing the strict realism of heroic historic paintings and formal portraits that were in vogue in the mid-nineteenth century, the Impressionists used broader brush strokes, large, broken areas of light and shade, and less detail to create "impressions" of people and places that, paradoxically, seemed more lifelike than their contemporaries whose ideal work approached photography. Their subject matter, too - intimate personal scenes, landscapes, and cityscapes - was a reaction against the monumental, patriotic art celebrated in mid-nineteenth century Europe and America.
Oil on canvas painting of two women and a carnival clown on a baloney
On the Balcony During a Carnival, by Mary Stevenson Cassatt, 1873.

Born in 1844 in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Cassatt was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who moved the family to Lancaster and then Philadelphia, where he set up an investment firm. Her parents completely supported her financially and morally, sending her first to the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1856 to 1860 and then to Europe. (They joined her there in 1878 while a brother, Alexander Johnston Cassatt, rose to be President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the largest corporation in the world.)

After studying in Paris, her country house at Mesnil-Theribes would be her home for the next six decades. Although she only returned to the United States a few times, Cassatt described herself to her biographer Archille Segard as "definitely and frankly American." She took a great interest in the women's suffrage movement, supporting her life-long friend Louisine Elder Havemeyer, (married to American Sugar Company magnate Henry Havemeyer) a founder of the National Women's Party and tireless campaigner for the vote. Cassatt also used her family's money and some of her own earnings from her popular paintings, to help support Impressionist art and artists both in the United States and France.
A mother holds one naked infant on her lap and a young daughter stands leaning against a red cushioned bench.
Mother and Two Children, by Mary Cassatt.

Cassatt began as a well-regarded but conventional artist; in the early 1870s her works were regular features at the Paris Salon, the government-sponsored "official" exhibit of paintings regarded as the best by art experts and academics. Works such as "The Bacchante" (1872 - Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and "On the Balcony" (1873-Philadelphia Museum of Art) reflect Manet's influence. By the mid-1870s, she had learned of the Impressionists and begun painting in their style. Note the similarities between Degas' 1877 portrait of her and her own 1880 self portrait (both National Portrait Gallery, at the Smithsonian).

She told Segard the story of how she officially became an Impressionist: "In 1877, I submitted again [to the Salon]. They rejected it. That was when Degas made me promise never to submit anything to the Salon again, and to exhibit with his friends in the group of the Impressionists. I agreed gladly. At last I could work absolutely independently, without worrying about the possible opinion of a jury! I had already acknowledged who my true masters were. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I hated conventional art. I accepted with joy. . . . I was beginning to live."

Cassatt was not the only major American artist who had to return to the Old World for the stimulation and freedom she required. There she joined male artists, notably John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler, who also studied and then remained abroad, where their "modern" - that is, less than strictly realistic - technique was more appreciated. Yet even they refused Degas' invitation to join the Impressionists, the group being too radical for them. marker(Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist from Philadelphia who also lived in France from 1891 until his death in 1938, despite similarities with the Impressionists, was mostly noted for his religious paintings.)
Oil on canvas of a woman holding two cymbals
The Bacchante, by Mary Cassatt, 1872.

Although she never married or had children, Cassatt became most noted for her portraits of mothers (or nurses) and children. The compassionate humanity and beautiful color schemes she demonstrated will forever associate her with that subject, much as Degas is known for his ballet dancers, Renoir for his young girls, and Monet for the gardens of Giverny. (See for example: "The Bath - 1891-2" at the Art Institute of Chicago; "Breakfast in Bed," 1897 at Huntington Library; "The Caress," 1902 at National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
Oil on canvas of Ernesta Beaux Drinker, the artist's sister, with a young child, Henry Sandwith Drinker sitting in her lap
Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance, by Cecilia Beaux, c. 1883-5.

Cassatt's health and eyesight declined after 1910, forcing her to stop painting. With her advice, her friend Louisine Havemeyer acquired one of the world's great art collections, much of which now resides in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like Pennsylvania coke king markerHenry Frick and many other multi-millionaires of the age, Havemeyer used much of her fortune and employed the services of an "expert" like Cassatt to convey large quantities of European art to the United States, where it ultimately came to edify the public in museums. Bernard Berenson similarly served Isabella Stewart Gardner whose private museum houses her collection in Boston, and New York art dealer Ronald Knoedler was Henry Clay Frick's purchasing agent.

Two schools of thought exist concerning Cassatt's art. Modernist critics, such as Edgar Richardson in Art News (April 1954), criticized her "circumscribed . . . world of well-bred ladies living lives of leisure, delighting in their dresses, their company, and their well-behaved children. There is an odd contrast between the boldness of her style and the world of perpetual afternoon tea it serves to record." But most lovers of art would agree with Achille Segard, who found "her conception of life and art . . . profound and touching. One perceives that she has a strong feeling that the place of the child in human life is of limitless importance." She shared with her fellow Impressionists "the use of lively and brilliant tones; new and unpredictable harmonies of color," but was the only one who was not as a "stranger to the painting of individual expressions of the human soul."
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