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Lasting impressions

National Gallery exhibition displays different hues of Mary Cassatt

Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The world might never have known the lusty, voluptuous colors and images of Mary Cassatt, seen in a new, free exhibit at the National Gallery of Art through Sept. 6, if it weren't for the Roman Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh.

 
  "Portrait of Little Girl (Little Girl in Blue Armchair)," 1878, is one of the pieces featured in an exhibition of Mary Cassatt at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, collection of Mr. And Mrs. Paul Mellon)

The year was 1871. The place was Hollidaysburg, Pa., 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. After four years of study in France and two celebrated artistic successes at the French Academy's Paris Salon, the 27-year-old artist had been forced out of Europe by the Franco-Prussian War.

It was a depressing time for the strong-willed, independent Cassatt. During her years overseas as a student, Cassatt's family had moved from Philadelphia's urban hubbub to Hollidaysburg, a place where Cassatt had little artistic inspiration, few models and a desperate need to earn money from her painting.

Always passionate about art and confident that she would eventually become an artistic star, Cassatt was ready to quit. She wrote to a friend: "I have given up my studio and have not touched a brush for six weeks, nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe."

Cassatt eventually shook off her malaise and took two of her paintings to Pittsburgh, where she was born and spent her earliest years. There, Michael Domenec, the bishop of Pittsburgh, liked her work enough to give her a $300 commission to journey to Italy to copy two religious masterpieces by 16th-century painter Antonio Allegri da Correggio for Pittsburgh's new St. Paul's Cathedral.

A month later, Cassatt left for Europe and would never again live in the United States. She completed the commission for Pittsburgh and began carving out a niche for herself as an Impressionist in the European art world. But it would be some years before she would take her place as one of the century's great American artists, along with James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

Her friend and mentor, the French artist Edgar Degas, once insisted, "No woman has the right to draw like that."

The National Gallery's Cassatt exhibition, which already has been in Chicago and Boston, shows 54 paintings and prints spanning Cassatt's career.

She was the only American and one of two women (the other was French painter Berthe Morisot) who were part of the inner core of the Impressionist movement.

The exhibition includes a number of Cassatt's best-known -- and best-loved -- works, including: "Portrait of a Little Girl" (also known as "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair"), "The Boating Party," "Woman in a Loge" and "Young Girl at a Window."

Judith Barter, the Art Institute of Chicago curator who organized the Cassatt show, said it was meant to "convey the innovative and multifaceted achievements of this outstanding, late-19th-century artist."

Beginning with Cassatt's moodily colorful paintings of Spanish scenes and ending with brightly hued works featuring mothers and children, the exhibit highlights her many contradictions.

In her critically praised biography, "Mary Cassatt: A Life" (Yale University Press, $18), author Nancy Mowll Mathews expands on many paradoxes in Cassatt's life. Cassatt was born in America but lived, worked and made her name in France. Classically trained in art, she won fame and fortune by bucking artistic convention. Never married, she is one of the best interpreters of the emotional intensity between mothers and their children.

"She had a talent that was recognized and nurtured from an early age; she had a personality that allowed her to navigate a treacherous art world; she lived among people and in historical circumstances that gave her opportunities; and she had the good fortune to find a group like the Impressionists that made a lasting impact on world culture," Mathews wrote.

Born on May 22, 1844, Cassatt was the fourth of seven children of Robert and Katherine Cassatt, members of Pennsylvania's social elite. When Mary was born, the family was living in Allegheny City, a wealthier and more cultured area than Pittsburgh (the North Side community eventually was merged with the city).

Robert Cassatt, who made his fortune in an investment business by his early 40s, served on the Allegheny City Council in 1845 and 1846 and was mayor in 1847.

Like wealthy families of the time, the Cassatts rarely lingered long in one house, or one city. Several years after Mary was born, the family moved to Philadelphia, where Cassatt spent her formative years.

Cassatt was 15 when she began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a progressive institution where most of the curriculum, except for classes with nude models, was open to women.

After five years of study, Cassatt, like many of her contemporaries, went to Paris to continue her art education. Her passport described the slender, 5-foot-6 Cassatt as having "gray eyes, a small nose, a large mouth and chin, brown hair and a ruddy complexion."

In France, Cassatt was barred from attending the all-male School of Fine Arts. She persuaded a top French artist of the time, Jean Leon Gerome, to give her private painting lessons. She followed up this success a few years later, in 1868, when judges at the Salon, the official annual art exhibition, selected one of her paintings for exhibition. Another of her paintings was chosen in 1870, fueling Cassatt's ambition and drive.

But her plans were cut short by the Franco-Prussian War, which sent her back to Hollidaysburg. Unfortunately, the work that Cassatt did in Italy for the Pittsburgh Cathedral has been lost.

"Lack of specific information relating to Cassatt's Pittsburgh commission has led scholars not to consider it in discussions of her early development," Andrew J. Walker writes in an essay in the catalogue accompanying the Cassatt exhibit. "However, the project becomes notable when viewed as a major step in her education."

By 1874, Cassatt was back in Paris, trying to make a living. Although her work was accepted at the renowned Paris Salon annually from 1872 through 1876, Cassatt found it increasingly difficult to paint in the academic, conventional way required by the Salon judges. So she was delighted to receive an invitation from Degas in 1879 to exhibit with the Impressionists, whose loose brushwork and vivid hues entranced her.

"I accepted [Degas' invitation] with joy," she said. "I hated conventional art. I began to live."

Cassatt's association with the Impressionists brought her into the public eye as she joined their exhibitions from 1879 to 1886. She began to try new ways to use line and color and experimented with new media, such as printmaking. And she began to stress new themes, including female theatergoers, tea parties and mothers and children.

From then on, Cassatt focused on the world of women -- dwelling on the inner life of her models, not their outer beauty.

New York art critic Adam Gopnik argues that, while Cassatt tackled feminine subjects, she was breaking new ground. "She was the first to grasp the modern condition of mother and child. She discovered, or recorded, a new emotion in the world, the nearly adulterous, exhausting love with which middle class women have come to address their babies."

Much of Cassatt's most-recognized works, including a controversial mural she did for the Women's Pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair 1892, was completed before the end of the century. She continued to paint and began a second career as an art adviser to American collectors, many her friends and acquaintances.

Cassatt developed diabetes and near-blindness as she aged, and then on June 14, 1926, at age 83, she died at her country home outside Paris.


"Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman" is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on Constitution Avenue, N.W., between 3rd and 7th Streets. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. For more information: 202-737-4215.



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