CASSATT, MARY (1844 – 1926)
Who was Mary Cassatt?
Born on May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now a part of Pittsburgh), Mary Cassatt was a remarkable woman who succeeded in what was then a predominantly male profession. The daughter of a wealthy investment banker, her family was close, and she was brought up to be independent and pursue her own interests. Cassatt lived with her family in France and Germany, where from 1850-55 she spent long periods of time in Paris, Heidleburg, and Darmstadt. In 1855, the Cassatts returned to Philadelphia. In 1861, at the age of 16, Cassatt enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting
On January 1, 1866, Mary Cassatt traveled to France to further her study of painting. She eventually settled in Paris, where she took private lessons. It was during this time that Cassatt became aware of and interested in the work of the Impressionists, and in particular that of Edgar Degas. Cassatt was skilled at drawing, and she paid particular attention to form and line in her paintings. Degas, who was known to be blunt and caustic in his opinions towards women, said of Cassatt, “I am not willing to admit that a woman can draw that well.”
Degas invited Cassatt to exhibit her works with the Impressionists in 1877. She was the only American artist ever to do so. She took part in Impressionist exhibitions on four subsequent occasions. After the last exhibition with the Impressionists, she began a professional affiliation with Paul Durand-Ruel and displayed many solo exhibitions in his galleries. Cassatt is best known for her representation of women’s experience, and had a particular focus on the relationship of mother and child. Her work displays the private activities of women, including knitting, reading, taking tea, and interacting with children. In the early years, Cassatt worked primarily in oil, but in the 1890s began to experiment with pastels and printmaking.
Although decidedly a member of the Impressionist circle, Cassatt focused more on form and detail than did such contemporaries as Monet, who was mainly concerned with light and atmosphere. In fact, some of Monet’s work didn’t impress her at all. She wrote, “Rene went to see Monet and found him at work on large panels of water lilies. One would have to build a room especially for them I suppose. I must say his Nemphes [Les Nympheas] pictures look to me like glorified wall paper. You have some of the best work. I won’t go so far as D. who thinks he has done nothing worth doing for 20 years, but it is certain that these decorations without composition are not to my taste.” – from letter to long-time friend Louisine Havemeyer, Sept. 8, 1918.
Cassatt was witty, elegant, and while socially skilled, she loved solitude. Typical for the day, most of her close friends were women. She was, however, also good friends with Degas and her male art teachers. She was avidly interested in politics and literature and her letters contain many literary references. She was never married, career success being more important to her. She was plagued by serious visual health problems in her later years that affected both her art and quality of life. She died on June 14, 1926 in her French Chateau at the age of 81.
Cassatt’s visual disorders: Cataracts & diabetic retinopathy
Cassatt’s visual problems began in 1900, at age 56. Her acuity began to decline, and she reported her sight to be getting progressively dimmer. In 1910, she relinquished printmaking due to these difficulties. In 1912, at age 68, she was diagnosed with cataracts by the famous ophthalmologist, Edmond Landolt, M.D., who had earlier treated Degas. Unfortunately no records survive. Cassatt visual problems were exacerbated by lack of care, as it was difficult to find doctors to treat civilians during WWI. By 1915, at the age of 71, Cassatt was forced to give up her work. Cassatt was diagnosed with diabetes around 1919 and experienced a concurrent retinopathy.
Cassatt’s visual decline had tremendous impact on her psychological well-being. Her problems, which she attributed to painting, shortened her artistic career. In a letter to her good friend Louisine Havemeyer in 1913, she wrote, “I have overlooked my bodily welfare, but I have worked so hard besides, and nothing takes it out of one like painting. I have only to look around me to see that, to see Degas a mere wreck, and Renoir and Monet too.” Wartime conditions also seemed to be taking their toll. Cassatt wrote, “Since I saw you last, I have been so ill, no one thought I would recover – but I did, and then I overworked and when the war cloud burst, I broke down under my responsibilities & it has taken me all winter to get well again, – & my sight is enfeebled.” – from letter to Theodate Pope, June 8, 1915 (Villa Angeletto).
In 1917, Cassatt had a cataract operation on her right eye. She subsequently experienced opacity of the posterior lens capsule in the same eye, worsening her already diminished sight. Cassatt dreaded the forthcoming operation on her left eye. On May 24, 1919 she wrote, “My sight is getting dimmer every day. I find writing tires my eyes. I look forward with horror to utter darkness and then an operation which may end in as great a failure as the last one.” Cassatt’s premonitions proved correct; poor results were obtained when the left eye was operated on in 1919 when she was 75. Cassatt was greatly distressed; she could not read, could not paint, and was suffering from the effects of diabetes. It is thought that Cassatt underwent a treatment of radium inhalations, a therapy used for many diseases in the 19th century. The dangers of radium were not fully known, and this type of therapy was used for treatment of cataracts as well as diabetes.
Impact on her work
Cassatt’s visual problems forced her to switch from oils to pastels, which are easier to work with demand less precision. The precision of and detail in her early work is evident in her painting of her sister Lydia (left), painted when Cassatt was 36. Note the fine detail in the lace of Lydia’s hat and in the folds of her dress.
As her visual problems advanced, the meticulous lines that were characteristic of Cassatt’s earlier works became strident, bold strokes of color. This can be seen in her pastel of Margot (right), done at age 58, by which time, Cassatt had experienced visual difficulties for two years. Although a lovely picture in its own right, in comparison to Lydia, Margot is rendered with a more limited range of colors and relatively little detail. In her later works, her color range became similarly limited, and her canvases larger to accommodate for her loss of acuity.