The passion of Mary Cassatt

January 26, 2011

"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!" -Mary Cassatt

One of the most widely read posts at 3PP is Rembrandt and the evolution of artists as self, which explores artists' ability to promote themselves in their work, either through the subject matter depicted, or directly putting themselves into the image. In revisiting this piece, I noticed that I had made very limited mention of female artists, only including Frida Kahlo at the end. Later, when preparing an interview with Alexandra Korey I got to delve a little further into famous female painters. I soon realised there was much to be explored in famous female artists of the past and present - and committed to showcasing their stories and work at 3PP.

There are of course art historians who have dedicated their lives to exploring and promoting feminist art history. The most famous of these is perhaps Linda Nochlin, who penned the remarkable "Why have there been no famous women artists" for ARTNews in 1971. This is very much a niche area in art history, and not without a deal of controversy and politics. 3PP is not about politics, but promoting an interest into some wonderful artists. This series of posts are to redress the imbalance of female artists presented at this site, and online in general.

Some of the upcoming posts that will be featured in this series will be from art historians who have specialised in studying women artists. I am particularly looking forward to finding out more about Renaissance female artists, such as Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola. The objective in starting this series is simple - to help myself and others learn more about a group of artists who commonly do not get as much exposure.

A photo of a young Mary Cassatt, digitally scrubbed up by yours truly

To start this series, I have chosen Mary Cassatt(1844-1926), an American impressionist painter. Mary Cassatt reportedly disliked being labelled as a 'woman artist' due to the great prejudices heaped on women artists by the art establishment of her era. In her travels to Europe, she had great difficulty entering into maintream artists' circles.

Whilst her gender excluded her from studying at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, she approached one of its professors, Jean-Léon Gérôme which resulted in her apprenticeship to the great painter of orientalist subjects. In the earlier part of her career Cassatt's exposure to the old masters and the history inspired style of Gérôme influenced her work. This is most clearly seen in the classically themed 'Bacchante(1872)', a depiction of a female follower of Bacchus. I like the notion that the cymbals held by this confident female figure announced Cassatt to the world with a melodious bang.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Cassatt found greater acceptance with the radical movement of artists we know as the French Impressionists. Considered a fringe member of this group, many of Cassatt's works display impressionistic elements, some even being retouched by impressionist artists, as in the case of the background in 'Little Girl in a Blue Armchair(1878)', which Edgar Degas assisted with.

The most charming part of Cassatt's story was her profound dedication to her work. She famously stated that she was 'married to her painting', and despite prejudices against female painters still had the perseverance to realise her life's ambition of being an artist. This paved the way for the prominence of female artists in the 20th Century and to present day, where the work of artists such as Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle command a throng of attention worldwide.

To introduce you to this pioneering woman artist further, I invite you to watch this except from the remarkable art historian Tim Marlow, who presented a series of programs called Great Artists. It is interesting to note that Cassat is also the only female artist featured in this series. There is also a wonderful video posted by The Smithsonian at YouTube featuring Linda Nochlin's presentation of American Women Artists, with a considerable amount dedicated to Cassatt.


Juliette said...

Brilliant idea for a series - female artists are so often overlooked, especially in Art History contexts

Sedef said...

this was such an enlightening and inspiring post. Thanks...

Unknown said...

Cheers for the lovely comments Juliette and Sedef!

I'm really looking forward to the next couple in the series, guest posts from my favorite art history bloggers :)


Alberti's Window said...

Great post! What a great kickoff for your series on female artists!

I've never seen that Cassatt painting of the bacchante before. Really, I think the female figure's features looks a little similar to Cassatt's own face - at least, from what I can tell from your beautifully "digitally scrubbed" photograph. :) I'm sure Abraham wouldn't be surprised by any similarity, since "every painter paints [her]self," right? :)

This type of self-portrait in an allegorical/mythological/classical role (if this really is a self-portrait of Cassatt, I might be mistaken) reminds me of a Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (1630s). I wonder if Cassatt was inspired by Gentileschi, and if any parallels between the two female painters can be made. If I find anything, I'll let you know (and if you have come across any commentary in your research for this post, I'd love to hear it!).

Unknown said...

Hi M! Thanks for your comment!

I can't say I see Cassatt as clearly in the Bacchante.

The main issue is that Cassatt's life was reasonably well documented and if she wanted to paint herself or someone she knew, she would, and did quite often.

She is well known for use of models (as in the opening quote above) and often used family members, as well as professional models.

In researching this post I came across a few others who were eager to compare Artemisia and Cassatt but no reference to primary documents where Cassatt expresses her deep fascination with the Italian artist. I would imagine if she succinctly expressed this then it would be frequently cited - it is not!

There's more to be found of Cassatt praising Japanese woodcut artists than Artemisia! The Bacchante itself was painted during a time where she had a commission to make some copies of Corregio works - she was in Parma at that stage.

If you do turn anything up in your researches, let us know!


Karen Barrett-Wilt said...

What a thoughtful summary of Cassatt! I recently rediscovered her -- when I was younger, I wrote her off as a painter of the domestic sphere in which I was definitely not interested! I find myself in a different place now, though, and I'm writing a brief post on her Japanese prints. (Will definitely refer others to your post!) By the way, The Little Girl in a Blue Armchair is one of my favorite works by Cassatt -- perfect, in so many ways. The little girl looks like little girls that I know -- kind of hot, maybe irritated, flopped down in the chair, maybe she dozed a little bit, it's so quiet in that room. Love it! Thanks!

Karen Barrett-Wilt said...

correction: Japanese-inspired prints. and clarification: When I was so busy rebelling against domesticity, I didn't know that Mary Cassatt was about the complicated domesticity of her specific life and her time. Had I given it a chance, I might have appreciated her sooner! Thanks again for the post, Hasan!

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