Original Document
Original Document
Louisine Havemeyer on Mary Cassatt, 1927.

MARY CASSATT and I have been lifelong friends. She has been my inspiration and my guide. I call her the fairy godmother of my collection, for the best things I own have been bought on her judgment and advice....

If ever there was a true artist, it was Mary Cassatt. Always steering toward the highest ideals, undaunted and unflinching, her hand upon the tiller, she has kept true to her course through all the storms of adverse criticism, of raillery and of discouragement. "There are two ways for a painter," she often said to me, "the broad and easy one and the narrow and hard one."

Although the year 1889, when I made my first trip to Europe after my marriage, was an important one for our collection, the most interesting event in it was Mr. Havemeyer's first meeting with Miss Cassatt. It resulted in a friendship which lasted through life, and in my hour of grief, a cable was handed to me from her and I read the touching message: "I too mourn a friend."

It is difficult to express all that our companionship meant. It was at once friendly, intellectual, and artistic, and from the time we first met Miss Cassatt, she was our counselor and our guide. We corresponded constantly when we were apart and always traveled together when abroad. She was ever ready to go with us or to do for us, and rarely did we go to Europe that she had not traced some fine picture for us to consider, or had not skillfully laid a fuse into some rich mine of art for our benefit; occasionally the fuse was short, and a sudden upheaval resulted in a valuable acquisition, or the fuse might be long, burning slowly, and only after years of patient waiting would we see the flash and know we had unearthed a treasure.

Excepting only that of my husband, Miss Cassatt's was the most independent mind I ever met, and yet, strange to say, these two strong personalities never clashed; respect and admiration would have prevented any such misfortune.

I was only about fifteen years of age when I first met Miss Cassatt. In order to learn French I was living with the family of Francois Del Sarte, and Miss Cassatt was working in Paris after a year of art study in Seville and several more in Parma. I wondered how she had the courage to go to Spain in the days of the Carlista wars, or to Italy before the bandits were controlled, but she was resourceful, self-reliant, true, and brave, and no one had a better or more truly generous heart.

When we first met in Paris she was very kind to me, showing me the splendid things in the great city, making them still more splendid by opening my eyes to their beauty through her own knowledge and appreciation. I felt then that Miss Cassatt was the most intelligent woman I had ever met, and I cherished every word she uttered and remembered almost every remark she made. It seemed to me no one could see art more understandingly, feel it more deeply or express themselves more clearly than she did. She opened her heart to me about art while she showed me about the great city of Paris. She took me to the Opera, where, without depleting our pockets, she found a place where we could hear well and could enjoy the fine ballets that were attracting Degas's attention at that very time....

When traveling, Miss Cassatt was a very wizard and thoroughly knew a traveler's rights. In fact, I know her brother, the late A. J. Cassatt, owed much to her suggestions in perfecting the many details in the Pennsylvania system. Today it is hard to believe that there ever was a time when we had no cab service, no porters, no redcaps, no transfers, etc. All these novelties were imported from abroad, and most of them were first introduced through suggestions from Mary Cassatt to her "Brother Aleck."...

It was really a liberal education to be with Miss Cassatt. Only the dullest mind could fail to retain her original and suggestive remarks, for they stuck like burrs in one's memory and pricked the imagination for many years to come....

She must have found some hidden strength, for through a friendship of over half a century I could never see that Miss Cassatt grew old. Even in looks she changed but little. It was her personality that impressed and that ripened early. It merely deepened more and more as years passed on. After all, what matters the day of our birth? It is the day of our death that counts, and the memory of Mary Cassatt will last many years after she is gone.

She devoted her life to her art as devotedly as Degas did. She drew a charmed circle about her, and it took credentials of the highest order to be permitted to enter it. She had no time [and] no taste for visiting and could resist meeting princes and princesses with a nonchalance that was amusing.

"I have a right to refuse anyone, for I work from eight to ten hours a day," she would say when she refused a card. Yet when she did entertain, the occasion was not to be forgotten. She would then offer her splendid gifts as royally as a Queen of Sheba and her conversation and quick catching at thoughts was simply entrancing.

"It is no matter what she says," said an enthusiastic admirer, "it is the way she says it."

Although Miss Cassatt's taste was for a quiet life, she often entertained in her apartment in Paris. Her evenings "at home" were attended by many interesting people: diplomats, painters, critics, and writers. Her brilliant mind was like a crystal with many facets. She discussed the Boer War with her friend "the special envoy"; the destiny of museums and art influence with the directors and the leading critics of the day; or realism in literature with some young god of Parnassus. Her luncheons were delightful. I remember one where church and state met at the time of the separation, and it took a Clemenceau to calm the resulting agitation. He wrote an able article and referred to her art as "one of the glories of France."...

She never allowed her photograph to be taken and if anyone begged her for a snapshot she would quickly turn so that all the camera caught of her was the outline of her back or, at most, a little bit of profile.

The only suggestion of a portrait that I know of her is a small picture that I bought before my marriage. It is in gouache and represents a lady in a bonnet with her gloved hands lying upon her lap. Miss Cassatt told me she was her own model for that picture and did it looking at herself in a mirror. The hands are very characteristic, and she wore the same bonnet when she posed for one of Degas's Modistes.

As for Miss Cassatt being a pupil of Degas, it is not true, for she did not even meet him until she had known his works and felt their influence for several years. She wrote me only a few weeks ago and said: "How well I remember nearly forty years ago seeing for the first time Degas's pastels in the window of a picture dealer in the Boulevard Haussmann. I would go there and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

After they met some years later, long years of friendship ensued, of mutual criticism and, I must add, of spicy estrangements, for Degas was addicted to throwing verbal vitriol, as the French called it, upon his friends, and Miss Cassatt would not have been the daughter of the French Cossards if she had not been equal to answering his taunts. She could do without him, while he needed her honest criticism and her generous admiration....

[O]ne must know that Miss Cassatt never admitted sex in art, and could never be persuaded to exhibit in any exhibition for women's work only. I have often, out of deference to her views, refused to lend her pictures on such occasions.

Miss Cassatt was one of the first to appreciate Degas's nudes, and she "tells a story on herself' apropos of the subject. She said: "Degas went to Durand-Ruel pere and asked him to take his nudes, but the old man, who did not care for them, hesitated. `But,' said Degas, `they must be good, for Miss Cassatt admires them.' `Pauvre fzlle,' answered Durand-Ruel, `mais elle n'a pas de gout' (Poor thing, she lacks judgment), but I did not lack judgment," she added triumphantly, for the nudes were not long in becoming famous.

Brought up by such a mother, it would be impossible for Miss Cassatt to indulge in fads or foibles. She was practicable, self-reliant, and conscientious toward all, and one of her greatest charms was the contrast between her frank admiration for others and a timid, modest appreciation of herself.

"It is a liberal education to be with her," said one of our leading businessmen to me, and indeed it was, for, gifted with a marvelous memory, hers was one of the best-stored minds I ever knew. She stored her knowledge in the cells of an active, vigorous brain and ripened it as the bees do their honey in the comb. She thought deeply and reflected long, and her remarks were always pithy, apt, and full of suggestion. I once asked her, apropos of a certain subject, how she had arrived at such a conclusion. "Ah!" she replied, "when I take my walks and during the long evenings when I am alone, I have time to think."

Early in our collecting, when Mr. Havemeyer and I were chatting with Miss Cassatt after dinner, she suddenly looked up from her coffee, and holding the little spoon in her hand, she made a convincing gesture and said emphatically: "To make a great collection it is necessary to have the modern note in it, and to be a great painter, you must be classic as well as modern."

I at once thought of a beautiful painting which M. Durand-Ruel had allowed us to buy out of his own collection. Miss Cassatt had done a mother with her baby's head upon her shoulder, which we had always called her Florentine Madonna. It united the old and the modern just as she said it should be.

It seems to me, I could write a textbook on art only by repeating her aphorisms, her terse, sapient counsels on the science and the difficulties of the profession. For instance, in expressing a movement or a gesture, she would say you must make the cause as well as the result felt, or it will not tell the story....

Miss Cassatt was an ardent suffragist always stimulating me to renewed efforts for the cause. On the 2nd of August, she wrote me: "The great drama is opening around us! How will it all end? Possibly in a United States of Europe!" And she added, "Work for suffrage, for it is the women who will decide the question of life or death for a nation."

Truth compels me to add that after a time she expressed grave doubts about our being able to control the destinies of a nation or in any way affect their future....

It was in the rue Marignan that Miss Cassatt developed her remarkable capacity for work. She inherited her energy from her mother, but its application to her work was all her own. I remember she said to me one day: "Why do these young girls come to me for advice? They have not the slightest notion of giving to art the devotion it requires. I say to them, `Do you ever go to the Louvre and copy some of the great masters?' And they invariably answer, 'Oh, no, we can't, we are working in a studio, we have no time.'

"`Degas does,' I answer. `He will go to Lille for weeks or to St. Quentin for months.' But what good does it do to talk to them? They will never arrive! Mme Morisot was right when she said a young student should go to some provincial town where there are a few good pictures and avoid the distractions and the snares of the studios of Paris." Miss Cassatt was silent a moment and then continued: "I went to Seville when I was a young girl. It was horrid and I was alone, but I braved it out for a year. Then I felt I needed Correggio and I went to Parma. A friend went with me; she did not remain, but I stayed there for two years, lonely as it was. I had my work and the few friends I made. I was so tired when my day was done I had little desire for pleasure. Even now I work eight hours a day and afterward take my walk with Matilde, and in the evenings after reading a little I am quite ready to go to bed."

Miss Cassatt seemed inclined to talk and continued: "I doubt if you know the effort it is to paint! The concentration it requires, to compose your picture, the difficulty of posing the models, of choosing the color scheme, of expressing the sentiment and telling your story! The trying and trying again and again and oh, the failures, when you have to begin all over again! The long months spent in effort upon effort, making sketch after sketch. Oh, my dear! No one but those who have painted a picture know what it costs in time and strength!

"After a time, you get keyed up and it `goes,' you paint quickly and do more in a few weeks than in the preceding weary months. When I am en train, nothing can stop me and it seems easy to paint, but I know very well it is the result of my previous efforts."...

Miss Cassatt always deplored the invasion of the French studios by Americans, who were lured to Paris by the fata morgana of thinking that a disposition for art meant a talent for art, and who were sure to fail after years of useless labor, or be lost in the contamination of the Latin Quarter. "How much better for them to find something to do at home," she would say to me. "I have worked for forty years and I feel I need forty more. Few have the courage to stand the strain."

I recall the time when she was interested in etching. Eight o'clock in the morning would find her in her gray blouse in the small pavilion over the dam that fed her piece d'eau and where she had installed her printing press. There she would work while daylight lasted with the aid of a printer. She did her own coloring and wiping of the plates. It was at the cost of much physical strain for she actually did the manual work.

"I wonder all etchers do not do their own printing!" she said to me. "It makes a great difference, for no two impressions are exactly alike." Then she continued, "I love to do the colored prints, and I hope the Durand-Ruels will put mine on the market at reasonable prices. For nothing, I believe, will inspire a taste for art more than the possibility of having it in the home. I should like to feel that amateurs in America could have an example of my work, a print or an etching, for a few dollars. That is what they do in France. It is not left to the rich alone to buy art; the people–even the poor–have taste and buy according to their means. And here they can always find something they can afford."...

Her generous nature was always seeking to help others or to do a kind action. I rarely met her that she had not just done a portrait for someone who could not afford to pay for it; or, if she had accepted an order to do a portrait of the daughter of the house, she would add a pastel of the younger sister. For example, when she made a beautiful portrait of my daughter Adaline, she did a pastel of her in a large hat that was so successful that she kept it for herself. But long years afterward, she sent into Adaline's daughter,"Because," she said, "some day she would like to know how her Mama looked when she was a little girl."...

Like a true artist, Miss Cassatt shunned notoriety and was as inaccessible as Degas himself. She had no desire and no time for acclaim of any kind. With fortitude, she could see her contemporaries push forward and seek popular favor, but she patiently continues to work....

Credit: Louisine M. Havemeyer, "Mary Cassatt," in From Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector (New York: Urus Press, 1993).
Back to Top