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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
This visit of the Alexander Cassatts also gave Mary a chance to persuade her brother to begin collecting French painting. It was an opportune time, for the eighties was a period of serious financial difficulty in France, and many of Mary Cassatt’s friends were desperate. She personally saw to it that the large Pissarro family had enough to eat and used her savings to prevent the dealer Durand-Ruel from declaring bankruptcy. As Vollard remembered: “None but … a few intimates knew the whole extent of her generosity.” Her favorite manner of helping her friends, though, was to get Americans to buy their paintings; that way great art would come to the United States, and great French artists would eat. Under her tutelage Alexander Cassatt bought a Pissarro and a Monet. Her father was not exaggerating when he wrote to his son: “When you get these pictures you will probably be the only person in Philadelphia who owns specimens of either of the Masters.” Among other Americans who started collecting modern paintings at Mary Cassatt’s urging was Mrs. Potter Palmer, the doyenne of Chicago collectors, who was persuaded to buy Degas’ On the Stage , laying the foundation for the superb French impressionist collection now in Chicago’s Art Institute. But her first and greatest disciple remained Louisine Elder, who, in 1883, married Henry O. Havemeyer and thus brought the power of the vast Havemeyer sugar fortune into play in the European art world.
Mary Cassatt was now on the verge of what may well be considered her greatest artistic achievement. Like Whistler and Degas, she had long been interested in the work of the Japanese printmakers, particularly Utamaro and Hokusai, and she herself possessed a splendid print collection. But in 1890 there was held in Paris an exhibition of Japanese art on a scale never before seen in the West. The effect on Mary Cassatt—who went with Degas and Berthe Morisot—was profound, and the following year she produced a set of ten color prints in the Japanese manner that rank with anything of this kind done in the Occident. Pissarro called them “a show of rare and exquisite works,” and of one of them, Woman Bathing , Degas observed: “I do not admit that a woman can draw like that.”
The nineties were also the years in which Mary Cassatt painted her greatest pictures. In Mother and Child of 1890 the subtle design, the sureness of the brushstrokes, and the perfect, suggestive use of color is the work of a master. The same year she did a pastel, Woman Arranging her Veil , that was worthy of Degas himself. And in another pastel—this one of Mrs. Havemeyer and her daughter Electra in 1895—there is a splendid, sensitive revelation of character. Her mastery is obvious, too, in The Bath (1892), a complex composition showing Japanese influence, and in The Boating Party of the next year, one of her most brilliant paintings, with its bold use of broad surfaces of yellow and blue and its daring perspective. It was from the steady sale of paintings such as these that Mary Cassatt was able to purchase her country house, Beaufresne, with its forty-five acres.
With the death of her mother in 1895—her father had died four years earlier—she felt free at last to travel abroad. Thus in 1898–99 she paid her first visit to the United States since 1874. The announcement of her arrival in the Philadelphia Ledger did not amuse her:
Mary Cassatt, sister of Mr. Cassatt president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, returned from Europe yesterday. She has been studying painting in France and owns the smallest Pekingese dog in the world.
That, said Mary Cassatt, was what most Americans still thought of art and of women. In Philadelphia she stayed with her youngest brother, Gardner, and did pastels of his children. She then moved on to New England, visiting friends, spreading the gospel of modern French painting, and making portraits.
Undoubtedly the high point of her American visit, though, was a stay with the Havemeyers in the enormous house Louis Tiffany had designed for them on New York’s Fifth Avenue. It would be the search for old masters to adorn this mansion that would be one of Mary Cassatt’s great challenges, and her successful accomplishment of thai task would be one of her great gifts to the nalion. NoI that she abandoned contemporary art, for she was to persuade the Havemeyers to purchase many more nineteenth-century French paintings, including Manet’s brilliant portrayal of the battle of the Alabama and the Kearsarge , but now she was looking for works by the masters she had studied more than a quarter of a century before, when she was a young student in Italy and Spain.