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“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
In 1872 the twenty-eight-year-old American arrived in Rome to begin her career in earnest. She soon moved on to Parma, where she fell under the spell of the great native painter Correggio, whose splendid madonnas impressed her indelibly; in fact, years later mothers and children emerged as her favorite theme. But Mary Cassatt was not only copying. In that same year, 1872, she had a picture, On the Balcony , accepted by the Paris Salon. She had signed it Mary Stevenson, using her middle name; and a letter her brother Alexander wrote to his wife, commenting on this and her inclusion in the Salon, reveals all too clearly what the family really thought of her European decision:
[She] is in high spirits as her picture has been accepted by the annual exhibition in Paris. This you must understand is a great honor for a young artist. … Mary’s art name is “Mary Stevenson” under which name I suppose she expects to become famous, poor child.
The “poor child” was soon in Madrid studying Velazquez and in Antwerp copying Rubens; then, in 1873, she reached her ultimate destination, Paris. There one day on the Boulevard Haussmann she saw something in an art-shop window that was to have a profound effect on everything she did from then on. It was a small pastel by Edgar Degas. “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art,” she wrote later. “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” That winter Mary Cassatt painted a portrait, Madame Curlier , clearly reflecting her admiration for Degas’ work, and sent it to the 1874 Salon. The painting was accepted. When the exhibition, vast as always, opened, Degas was there, moving from canvas to canvas with his sharp eye and sharper tongue. Suddenly, in front of Mary Cassatt’s entry, he came to a halt—this time she had signed her own name—and turning to a friend exclaimed: “That is true! There is someone who feels as I do.” Though Degas and Cassatt were not to meet for three years, a link had been forged.
In the meantime Mary Cassatt was meeting the sort of people she had hoped to find in Paris: James McNeill Whistler, a fellow expatriate who came to admire her work as much as she admired his; John Singer Sargent, whom she was to accuse of betraying his great talent in order to make a fortune from slick society portraits; and there was an exceptionally perceptive teen-ager from Philadelphia named Louisine Waldron Elder. Their first encounter took place at a boarding school run by an Italian friend of Mary Cassatt’s. Always a teacher at heart, when the painter saw that the young girl was interested in art, she immediately took her under her wing. The next step is recorded in the pupil’s memoirs:
I was about sixteen years old when I first heard of Degas, of course through Miss Cassatt. She took me to see one of his pastels and advised me to buy it. … I scarce knew how to appreciate it, or whether I liked it or not, for I believe it takes special brain cells to understand Degas. There was nothing the matter with Miss Cassatt’s brain cells, however, and she left me in no doubt as to the desirability of the purchase and I bought it upon her advice.
There certainly was nothing wrong with Miss Cassatt’s brain cells. When an heir sold the pastel, Répétition de Ballet , in 1964, the picture the young Louisine Elder had bought for a hundred dollars fetched $410,000.
These early years of the seventies witnessed a growing sureness in Mary Cassatt’s work, an increasing boldness in her faces, and an unflinching honesty in her portrayal of character. Always a hard worker, she was in her studio by eight every morning, painting until it was dark. She was selling, too, at prices up to a hundred dollars, not at all bad for the period. And she was exhibiting to good notices at the National Academy of Design in New York and had paintings accepted in five successive Paris Salons. It appeared that the determined young American was on her way to becoming a solid, established artist—perhaps another Rosa Bonheur. But then something happened. For the Salon of 1875 she submitted two pictures; one was accepted, but a portrait of her sister, Lydia, painted in the light, almost transparent coloring favored by Degas and Monet, was turned down. She toned it to the dark palette then fashionable at the École, and it was accepted in the Salon of 1876. When she was rejected again the following year, Mary Cassatt decided that she would never again compromise, never again submit to the Salon.