- 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
With the end of the Civil War Mary Cassatt decided thai it was time for her lo go to Europe to study. Her father’s reaction, however, was by no means enthusiastic. Obviously he had thought it a girlish idea that she would outgrow. It was not that Robert Cassatt was averse to Europe—indeed, he adored it—or to art; but knowing the prejudices of Philadelphia society, he feared that his daughter would be marked for life as an eccentric or, worse, a bohemian. But Mary, once her mind was made up, was a strong and determined character. In 1866 her father finally gave her permission to go to Paris, but her life there was to be strictly circumscribed. She lived with proper family friends, was visited by both her mother and her sister, Lydia, and moved only in the company of other Americans of “good” family.
Mary Cassatt had hoped to be inspired by the instruction she would receive in France, but she was disappointed. The training of artists in Paris, while on a much higher level than in Philadelphia, was extremely academic. The young American entered the studio of Charles Chaplin, a distinguished portrait painter attached to the official École des Beaux Arts who had made his mark by decorating one of the Empress Eugénie’s drawing rooms with a pink-toned Triumph of Flora. The routine at the atelier Chaplin, as at all the studios of the artists attached to the École, was for the students to copy nude models for six hours every day except Sunday. If a pupil pleased his master, that is, if he painted as nearly as possible like him, then one of his paintings might be admitted to the official annual Salon, there to hang with some one thousand similar works. Since the age of Louis XIV there had been no other road to artistic success in France. Mary Cassatt soon realized thai lhe highly polished, suave slyle of Charles Chaplin was not lhe way she wanted to paint.
But if lhe alelier Chaplin was a bil dull, Paris was noi. For a woman in her Iwenlies lhe cily was a wondrous place where lhe imperial fele of Napoleon in and his empress provided a never-ending banquel for lhe eyes and ears of all those in the capilal. The most lasting impression of these years for Mary Cassatt was of Paris’ incredibly rich artistic life, something she cherished, thrived on, and knew that she could not live without. In addition to all the official artists of the École—painters and sculptors like Jean Léon Gérôme, Adolphe William Bouguereau, and Jean Baptiste Carpeaux—exciting new men were making their appearance. There was Édouard Manet, whose Déjeuner sur l’Herbe , depicting a picnic at which a young lady was totally nude, shocked even Paris; Claude Monet, already experimenting with color in such a way as to make impressionism inevitable; and Edgar Degas, striving for the effect of spontaneity while still paying homage to the great tradition of French drawing. At a café near the Place Clichy these men, who would one day be Mary Cassatt’s friends, were already meeting regularly with other artists who shared their revolutionary views—Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
This stay in France irrevocably convinced Mary Cassatt that she was a serious artist, a professional. In a letter written to her brother’s new wife, Lois Buchanan, a niece of the President, she was scathing about a dilettantish friend: ”…she is only an amateur and you must know we professionals despise amateurs. …” And though Chaplin was not her ideal, she worked hard, sending home a steady stream of paintings. But Mary Cassatt’s second stay in France was about to be brought to an abrupt end. In the summer of 1870 Bismarck lured Napoleon in into a disastrous war with Prussia, and, with France in chaos, the young painter reluctantly returned to Philadelphia. There she did portraits of most of the family, as well as a fine head of her parents’ black servant. In the fall of 1871 she set out for Chicago, the El Dorado of the prairie, in the hope of selling some of her work. It turned out to be a most disappointing visit, for her paintings were burned. Having left Europe to escape the holocaust of war, she had arrived in Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire.
From the beginning Mary Cassatt had viewed her return to Philadelphia as merely a visit home, a brief interlude until she could resume her real life in Europe. She needed fellow artists to talk to and a society that accepted a painter as readily as it accepted a lawyer or a doctor or a banker. She needed Europe. It was a longing experienced by many of the young American artists of the period—Henry James, Theodore Robinson, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to name but three.
And Mary Cassatt needed art museums, a fledgling concept in the America of the seventies. Years later she stated this point bluntly: “When I was young our museums had no great paintings for the students to study.” Like most of the artists who would be her friends, she felt that the only important instruction came from studying the works of great painters and copying them. This could be done only in Europe.