- 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
The great hunt began with the arrival of the Havemeyers in Europe in 1901; and “hunt” is the correct word, for Mrs. Havemeyer observed that when tracking down pictures “Miss Cassatt had the ‘flair’ of an old hunter.” They started in Italy and then went to Spain—going from city to city, village to village, searching for paintings…with Mary Cassatt acting both as guide and as instructor. For everywhere they went she labored to educate Mr. Havemeyer’s taste in paintings. (That she was successful is suggested by his comment on first seeing the Prado in Madrid. He remarked that the United States should have asked for that rather than the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.) Miss Cassatt was soon opening his eyes to El Greco and Francisco Goya, then almost unknown in the United States. In an antiques shop in Madrid she found El Greco’s Christ Bearing the Cross for $250—and walked out with the painting under her arm—and they bought a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington for four thousand dollars. Through the godson of the Spanish infanta she led them to El Greco’s only known landscape, the famous View of Toledo , and his portrait of Cardinal Guevara , which Havemeyer at first refused because the subject was wearing glasses. She also got them to buy Goya’s superb Majas on the Balcony . In all of this, Mary Cassatt was an unpaid cicerone. Of course, the Havemeyers took care of all her travel expenses, and from time to time as a kind of subtle bonus Mrs. Havemeyer presented her with a piece of antique jewelry—a ring or golden chain—which she adored. But her real reward was the pleasure of knowing these masterpieces would one day be enjoyed by her fellow countrymen.
The early years of the new century were a bittersweet blend of pleasure and sadness for Mary Cassatt. Like Degas, who by the mid-1890’s had lost his vision to the point where he could scarcely draw, she was slowly going blind. And more and more the theme of mothers and children, a theme that had always attracted her, began to dominate her work; it was a kind of spinster’s sublimation, an acknowledgement that a woman who adored children would never have any. There is a haunting sense of this in the beautiful pastel of 1899, Madame Aude and Her Daughters , a picture filled with maternal contentment and infant affection. The great pleasure of her life in these years was Beaufresne. She loved the old pink brick hunting lodge that had been built in the time of Louis Kin and delighted in the great chestnut trees and poplars that surrounded it. She concerned herself with every detail—the enormous rosebushes, the fruit trees, the kitchen garden, in which, in addition to the usual French vegetables, she grew American corn. Her dinners there were famous, and in a country where the brilliance of women has always been respected (the French government made her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1904), her table was frequented by men of the caliber of Georges Clemenceau, the future premier, the portraitist Jacques Emile Blanche, the writer George Moore, and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. It was at this period that James Stillman brought his new daughter-in-law to Beaufresne, and the young woman left a vivid description of her hostess: “Miss Cassatt herself was tall and gaunt, dressed in a shirt waist and black skirt. But her strong face and rapid intelligent conversation gave me little time to notice externals.”
After a visit to America following the death of her brother Alexander in 1906, she continued her daily work schedule, seeing old friends and serious young art students but avoiding the swarms of rich Americans who had settled in Paris and wanted to meet this woman who was already a legend. Her idea of those worthy of her time was an austere one. She even considered Edith Wharton, who had just created a sensation with her novel The House of Mirth , something of a social butterfly. And she refused to attend a great reception held in the French capital for former President Theodore Roosevelt because she could not forgive his attacks on her brother’s railroad interests as well as on the Havemeyer family sugar trust.
Yet politically she was anything but a reactionary. She had backed Clemenceau in his battle against aid to church schools, was an ardent suffragette, and had sided with her close friend novelist Emile Zola in his support of Captain Dreyfus, even though this act caused Degas to stop speaking to her for a time. In 1908 Durand-Ruel gave a large, well-received retrospective of her works. She was particularly pleased by the review in the Paris edition of the New York Herald : “For a number of years Mary Cassatt has held a very high and undisputed place among the moderns. Characteristically she has always clearly avoided any subjection to a formula alien to her own vision as well as all compromise.…”