Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mary Cassatt 1844-1926 paints self-portraits

Mary Cassatt was born into an affluent family in Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the country's leading art schools where only 20% of the students were women. Bored with the sluggish rate of teaching & the superior attitudes of both male pupils & instructors, Cassatt resolved to learn the old masters on her own. She afterward declared, "There was no teaching" at the Academy. Female pupils were not allowed to use live models at the time, and the primary figure training was drawing from casts.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Self Portrait 1878

In 1865, Cassatt approached her parents with the idea of studying in Paris. Despite their initial objections, Cassatt's parents relented and allowed her to go. Because women were not admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, she applied to learn in private with masters of the school. Cassatt increased her arts training with daily sessions at the Louvre where she had received a copying permit. The museum served as a social gathering place for female pupils, who were not permitted to go to cafes which the avant-garde artists met.

In Paris, Cassatt attended classes in the studios of the academic artists Jean Léon Gérôme & Thomas Couture. She also traveled extensively in Europe studying & copying old master paintings. In 1874, she settled permanently in Paris, where her work was regularly shown at the Salon, the annual government-sponsored exhibition.

The following year she saw the pastel work of Edgar Degas, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement, in a gallery window. Years later, Cassatt described the importance of this experience, "I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Self Portrait 1880

Cassatt was one of a relatively small number of American women to become professional artists in the 19th-century when most women, particularly wealthy ones, did not pursue a career. But Cassatt was not working in order to survive.

When Cassatt settled in Paris, an artistic revolution was already underway in France. Artists were discovering new freedoms in chosing their subjects & styles and in where they showed their work to the public. Cassatt's career blossomed amid these changes, but even though she felt a personal freedom, the women she painted here are certainly proper ladies, a part of accepted society. Her subjects may be depicted in relaxed postures doing everyday activities, but there can be no doubt that they are "ladies."