- Historic Sites
“I do not admit that a woman can draw like that,” said Degas when he saw one of her pictures
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
At eight o’clock on the evening of June 14, 1926, a very old woman—blind and suffering from advanced diabetes—died in her chateau on the edge of the tiny village of Mesnil-Theribus, some thirty miles northwest of Paris. At her funeral, because she held the Legion of Honor, there was a detail of soldiers, and because she was chatelaine of the manor house, the village band played and most of the townspeople followed her coffin to the cemetery. There was nothing extraordinary in this; it is a not uncommon ritual in the villages of France. But an observant visitor to the old woman’s chateau and to the cemetery in which she was buried would have been struck by two quite astonishing things. In the beautiful high rooms of the house were paintings of a rare quality—paintings by Monet, Pissarro, and Courbet—and on the tomb in which she was laid to rest was this inscription: Sépulture de la Famille CASSATT native de Pennsylvanie États-Unis de l’Amérique
For the old woman buried on that June day in the heart of France was an American and a painter, one of our finest painters—Mary Cassatt, born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1844. Allegheny City was not a bad place in which to be born; the first suburb of Pittsburgh, it was the home of the newly rich bankers, merchants, and industrialists who were anxious to escape the noise and fumes that had produced their wealth. And Mary Cassatt’s family was at the very heart of its world. Two years later her father, Robert, would become mayor of Allegheny City, and her mother, Katherine, was a highly cultivated woman whose love of France had a profound effect on her daughter.
But Mary Cassatt was never really to know Allegheny, for her father, who had a small independent income from real estate and other investments, preferred travel and leisure to the daily routine of his brokerage business or to public office. In 1851, when Mary was seven, the Cassatts embarked for an extended stay in Europe. This European excursion had a lifelong effect on the young girl, for during the family’s stop in Paris a responsive chord was struck in her, bringing alive, as it were, her Huguenot ancestry. All her life she was fascinated by those Cossarts- the original spelling of the name- who had, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, emigrated from Normandy to Holland to New Amsterdam. And it was a propitious moment to have one’s imagination fired by French grandeur; while the Cassatts were staying at the Hotel Continental on the Rue de Rivoli, Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Napoleon, proclaimed himself emperor and thus ushered in the glittering splendors of the Second Empire.
After a stay in Paris the Cassatts lived for several years in Germany, where Mary’s brother Alexander attended the prestigious Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt. But by 1855 the family was anxious to get back to Paris. The leading attraction of the city that year was the vast Exposition Universelle that Napoleon in had organized in order to proclaim the success of his regime. For the first time at a world’s fair there was a huge international art section of works chosen by a special jury, with the honors divided between the great classicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and the romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. But what was even more remarkable was the Pavilion of Realism, set up independently by Gustave Courbet to exhibit his own work after three of his paintings had been rejected by the official jury as “ugly.” Here, in marked contrast to the hollow prettiness of many of the entries in the international art section, were forty-four works representing, in Courbet’s words, “real and existing objects.” Mary Cassatt was never to forget the sight of them.
Late that year the family returned to the United States, eventually settling in a house near the present Philadelphia City Hall. Alexander was soon enrolled in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, studying civil engineering in preparation for the career he already planned for himself as a railroad man. After his graduation in 1859 he emerged as the real head of the family. In a letter written the next year he states that the family will soon be able to go to Europe “and leave me here to work for you.” From this same letter it is clear that Mary Cassatt had already decided to become an artist, for her brother writes: “In three years Mary will want to go to Rome to study. …” She had indeed made this decision, but the coming of the Civil War forced the family to postpone any quick return to Europe, and in the fall of 1861 Mary Cassatt became a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
The Academy, one of the few art schools in the United States, had a distinguished history stretching back to 1805, when it opened with a display of casts of sculpture from the Louvre, a display whose nudity so shocked decorous Philadelphia that the managers set aside one day each week for female visitors when the figures were modestly covered with sheets. This combination of prudery and conservatism still persisted in the 1860’s, and the curriculum consisted primarily of copying approved Roman and Greek plaster casts. Mary Cassatt found the school ledious, as did her fellow studenl Thomas Eakins, who, several years laier, lost his teaching job there because he insisied that his students work from nude models.