ArtSmart Roundtable: Mary Cassatt & the American Spirit

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 in ArtSmart Roundtable | 2 comments

This article is part of the monthly ArtSmart Roundtable, a group of art-history-loving travel bloggers who post a related article the last Monday of each month.  November’s topic is American Art – appropriate for the month when we celebrate such an American holiday as Thanksgiving!  For more related posts, check out the links at the end, or find us on Facebook here!

Mary Cassatt - "A Cup of Tea"

Americans are known for our pioneering spirit, right? We tend to tackle tough stuff – we invented jazz (if you think it’s easy to play, try following the written music) and we make some mean BBQ (YOU try entering a chili cookoff!)  We are blessed in that we can travel almost anywhere in the world freely.  And when a well-traveled woman has a dream, she’ll take on the world.

Such was the case of American painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), whose Pennsylvania childhood was peppered with visits to Europe and, despite her parents’ disinclination to support it, painting lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  At the World Fair in Paris in 1855 she was exposed to the works of Delacroix, Corot, Courbet and Ingres, solidifying her desire to make painting her career rather than a social skill, as was the acceptable interest for females of the time.  She found however that the opportunities for women to immerse themselves in training were few and far between – so she took matters into her own hands.

Like a true wanderluster would, Cassatt packed up and moved to Paris, applying to study privately with masters of the École des Beaux Arts, since they did not admit women.  While she copied at the Louvre and practiced her pastoral imagery on trips to the countryside, soon returning, frustrated, to the U.S. when the Salon wouldn’t regularly accept her subject-appropriate work, a group of artists were not-so-quietly gathering who, like her, rejected the stiff and unrelenting world of “acceptable” art.  Returning to Europe only to find further frustration and little progress, Cassatt joined Berthe Morisot, Degas (her most inspiring colleague) and the other Impressionists in their cause, depicting those now-recognizable sketched glimpses of everyday life.  Vivid pastel work, bright colors and soft scenes of mothers and children or women bathing (among others) are Cassatt’s hallmarks; she spent the final 30+ years of her life immersed in the art world, even taking up women’s suffrage causes and patronizing her own Impressionist colleagues by purchasing their works.  She found critical and financial success no only in Paris but Italy and America as well.  At the time of her death, Cassatt – though she had spent the majority of her life and career in Paris – was considered an American treasure.

Feminist? Maybe a little bit. Stereotypical female? Sometimes.  It cannot be denied though, that Cassatt’s zeal for the world abroad and her forward-thinking, unstoppable attitude toward her art and career reflect the essences of the American travel spirit in all their forms.  She truly embodied the inherent nature of what it is to be an American – to go above and beyond, and to cross borders to realize dreams.  Today there are stunning reminders of Cassatt’s legacy in homes and museums all over the world.  We can only hope our own travels leave those we meet with even a small memory of the same sense of possibility.

Other November ArtSmart Feature Articles:

Why Abstract Expressionism Matters by Ashley at No Onions Extra Pickles

An Unusual Dinner Party in Brooklyn by Jenna at This Is My Happiness

Warhol’s Art & Today by Erin at A Sense of Place

Five American Artists Worth of a Second Look by Kelly at Travellious

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  1. Pennsylvania, represent! :)

    It’s funny, there’s a depiction of her on a mural of famous Western PA-ers in Primanti’s (Pittsburgh), but I never knew who she was until college. She’s so often overlooked and ignored when you read about Impressionism. Her pieces always fascinate me.

    • I’ve always liked her, too, and even though I focused on Impressionism in college I completely forget that she isn’t actually French. She did some beautiful work to be sure.


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