In honor of Mother's Day, we looked at the work of Mary Cassatt who is recognized as one of the foremost 19th-century American Impressionist painters and printmakers. Her reputation is based primarily on an extensive series of tenderly observed paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child.
A native of a wealthy Pennsylvania family,
Mary was exposed to art through their extensive travels abroad. Though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the early age of 15 where her network of friends were lifelong advocates of equal rights for the sexes. Impatient with the slow pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study on her own and moved to Paris in 1866, with her mother as a chaperone. Since women could not yet attend the École des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt applied to study privately with masters from the school. The art scene in Paris revolved around cafe society, and women were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized, so as a result, her work reflected daily domestic scenes and the people within. She took as her subjects almost exclusively the intimate lives of contemporary women, especially in their roles as the caretakers of children and by doing so she deconstructed portraits and took quite ordinary subjects and made them extraordinary. Mothers breastfeeding and nurturing their children, women reading and families enjoying leisure activities were a radical departure from posed and orchestrated classic portraits. Very quietly and with little fanfare, she helped to bring art into the 20th century. Due to the subject matter, she has been often dismissed by critics but her work is represented in all of the major museum collections as well as sought after by private collectors.
Her legacy goes far beyond her contribution as an artist. Cassatt advised her wealthy American friends and relatives on collecting art, especially Impressionist paintings, stipulating that they eventually donate their purchases to American art museums. She was largely responsible for selecting the works that make up many major collections including the Havemeyer Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d'Honneur in 1904