- 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
Their finances were indeed every bit as straitened as Degas’. Mr. Cassatt had given up his brokerage business and was living almost totally on the income from a small legacy left to him by an uncle. They had in fact moved to Europe because of its comparative cheapness. A student in Paris, for example, could get by very well on five hundred dollars per annum ; secondclass passage on a good French liner was fifty dollars; the wages of five dollars a week paid to the Cassatt’s maid were considered extraordinary; and a Spanish vacation taken in the eighties by Mary Cassatt, her mother, and a maid cost $5.40 a day for the three of them, “including everything,” to quote Miss Cassatt. But even in Europe these people were not rich. The Cassatt’s first apartment was a sixth-floor walkup near the Place Pigalle, a respectable address at that time but certainly not a fashionable one. They lived there until 1884 and moved only because Mrs. Cassatt’s heart trouble had gotten to the point where the family doctor refused to allow her to climb the stairs. They then reluctantly found another apartment—one with an elevator. Because it was in a better quarter, was furnished, was large enough to provide comfortable accommodations for the Cassatts and their maid, and had an extra room that could be used as a studio, it was more expensive. The rent was sixty-five dollars a month. But the move was difficutt for them, and Alexander sent a check for a thousand dollars. Mary Cassatt’s relationship to these financial problems was spelled out in a letter written in 1878 by her father to Alexander: “Marne [the name the family always called her] is working away as diligently as ever but she has not sold anything lately and her studio expenses with models from one to two francs an hour are heavy. Moreover, I have said that the studio must at least support itself.”
Fortunately her paintings were soon selling well and to important collectors such as Vollard and Charles Haviland, the head of the great china firm. A fine example of her work at this period is a self-portrait in which her new lighter palette is reflected in her white dress and colorful bonnet, while her pose, a diagonal line across the canvas, shows the growing influence of Degas. She exhibited for the first time with the impressionists in their famous Fourth Show of 1879; her entry was La Loge , a striking portrayal of a girl in an opera box, painted with broad, certain strokes and luminous tones reminiscent of Renoir. After seeing it Paul Gauguin praised Mary Cassatt’s power. She was also being noticed by critics in important French and American publications and successfully exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy, the National Academy of Design in New York, and in Boston.
In the summer of 1880 Alexander Cassatt, a rising power in the Pennsylvania Railroad and well on his way to becoming a very rich man, brought his wife and four children to visit the family in Paris. The visit gave his sister a chance to add new faces to what was becoming a great family album. In A Cup of Tea of 1880 she had painted her sister Lydia and a friend using a tea set made in 1813 for the wedding of their grandmother; and the year before in Woman and Child Driving she had not only painted Lydia but also a niece of Degas’, as well as the family pony, Bichette. (Lydia was always one of Mary Cassatt’s favorite models, and her death from Bright’s disease in 1882 was a profound family tragedy.) Now she painted her mother reading to three of her four grandchildren as well as a fine portrait of her brother. There was one point of friction, however, in this familial solidarity. Her sister-in-law, Lois, always resented Mary’s outspoken independence: ”… I cannot abide Mary and never will,” she wrote to a friend. “I cannot tell why but there is something to me utterly obnoxious about that girl.” Mary Cassatt was equally cool to this woman whose main interest in life was elaborate French gowns and a costly mansion on Philadelphia’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square. Her only portrait of Lois is one small pastel.