Mary Cassatt – Towards Impressionism
Some time ago we started an exploration of two-dimensional artistic media and focused on the lesser-known medium of pastel. Currently, a look at a second famous female pastellist – Mary Cassatt (Rosalba Carriera of Venice which has already been discussed at length was the first.) The origins of pastels go back to northern Italy during the Renaissance: pastellists, including Da Vinci , continue into the Rococo era, after which its use faded until its rediscovery by Degas and Whistler, two important impressionists, as well as today’s artist, Cassatt.
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) was born in Alleghany City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) and lived most of her adult life in France where she became one of the main female members of the movement. impressionist and a close friend of Edgar Degas. To date, we have covered his life through his early successes as an American independent artist living in Europe in the 1870s.
By 1875 Cassatt’s frustration with the Paris Salon policy as previously discussed had reached its peak and she continued to openly criticize the jurors’ decisions and the conventional painting styles they selected by compared to those that were more experimental. According to his former traveling companion, Sartain, the critics of Cassat were “quite too sharp, sulks all modern art, despises the paintings of the Salon de Cabanel, Bonnat, all the names we are used to revere … The two women quarrel, Sartain felt Cassatt was too brutal and egotistical and in due course they went their separate ways.
The French art scene was indeed changing, as radical artists like Courbet, who was known for his ability to convey the physical characteristics of what he painted: its density, weight and texture, and Manet, whose l The work Le Déjeuner surherbe was exhibited in the Salon Des Refuses (an alternative for those who were not accepted in the Salon de l’Académie organized by the Emperor Napoleon III). The two tried to break away from current romance and the historic lore of the Academy. The Impressionist movement is the direct result.
Cassatt’s friend and classmate, Eliza Haldeman wrote home in the late 1860s, observing that artists “leave the Academy style and each seek a new direction, therefore everything is now Chaos.” Cassatt, during her early years in Paris, had continued to work in the traditional way, submitting works to the Salon for over ten years, with growing frustration as described above. Finally, Cassatt made the decision to change the subject of painting, to move away from genre paintings and instead focus on more fashionable subjects that would attract more commissions, especially those from wealthy American socialites during their European tours. His approach was not immediately successful. And her failure to be accepted to the 1877 Salon, with both of her nominations rejected – the first time since her 1872 success with “Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival” – probably didn’t help her self-confidence.
Cassatt was joined in Paris by her father and mother the same year (1877). Add her sister Lydia, and the whole family now lived together in a large apartment on the fifth floor of 13, avenue Trudaine, Paris. Mary found her parents’ company reassuring as neither she nor her sister were married. Mary knew early on that marriage would not be compatible with her career (remember we are talking about the 19th century, not the 21st). Additionally, Lydia, who often posed for her sister, suffered from recurring bouts of illness, and her death in 1882 left Cassatt temporarily unable to work.
Cassatt’s father, still dominant in some ways, insisted that Mary’s studio and supplies be covered by his sales, which were still meager. Rather than becoming a hack that painted purely touristy scenes, Cassatt made the effort to create quality works for the next Impressionist exhibition after her recent failure with the Salon. In 1878, Mary had produced three completed works inspired by this movement: Portrait of the Artist (self-portrait), Little Girl in the Blue Armchair and Reading of the Figaro (portrait of her mother) for the Impressionist exhibition.
Aware of Cassatt’s rejection in 1877 by the Salon, Edgar Degas invited her to show her works with the Impressionists, inspiring Cassatt’s hard work that year. The first independent exhibition of the Impressionists took place in 1874, when they were also known as the “Indépendants”. The group had no formal statements, the members painted with a wide range of subjects and techniques and continued to gain a lot of attention in the press and in society. Most of their members preferred plein air (plein air) painting to studio installations and generally applied their medium with bright, unmixed colors, letting the separate strokes tell their story on the canvas, which allowed the eye to merge them. The result is an “impressionist” representation of the subject. At the time of Degas’ invitation to Cassatt, the Impressionists had drawn criticism for several years.
Mary Cassatt had first seen Degas’ pastels in the window of an art dealer in 1875. She was drawn to them: “I used to go and press my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art, ”she later recalls. “It changed my life. So I saw art the way I wanted to see it.” Thrilled by Degas’ invitation to participate in the next exhibition, she worked hard to revise her style, technique, composition and use of color and light reflecting the influence of Degas and the Impressionists. Learn more about his first participation in the Impressionist movement and his friendship with Degas next time.