- 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
Degas had become a serious concern for her. In his seventies and nearly blind, he spent his days restlessly pacing the boulevards and following funeral processions. And though he was now very well-off, he still lived as though burdened with vast debts, dressing so shabbily that once when he went into a tobacconist’s, he was offered a free pack of cheap cigarettes with a “That’s all right, old fellow.” Mary Cassatt tried but could do nothing with him. “Mercy!” she wrote to a friend, “what a state he is in! He scarcely knows you, he neglects his clothes, he takes no interest in anything. It is dreadful! With millions of francs still in his studio, they can do him no good; he is consumed with old age.”
At the outbreak of World War I , Mary Cassatt’s family tried to get her to return to the United States, but she felt that her place was in France. And though her sympathies were totally on the Allied side, she was never infected with war fever the way Mrs. Wharton and Henry James were. To her the war was a horror: ”…the world is mad just now, when is it to end?” she wrote to an American friend. Beaufresne was barely fifty miles from the front, and when the Philadelphia painter George Biddle visited her there during the beginning of the Somme offensive, they ate cake and sipped wine to the constant accompaniment of an artillery barrage. Because of cataracts her eyes had now reached the stage where she could no longer read, but the suffering around her made this seem like nothing. As she wrote to a niece, her doctor had other problems:
In this sea of misery in which we live an individual case seems of little account. There are ten thousand blind in France. Dr. B__ has as many as twenty wounded people in at once, all with both eyes shot out … the women must be up and doing to prevent such another war or it will be the end of humanity.
In the midst of the fighting, in 1917, Degas died, and Mary Cassatt braved a bombardment to attend his funeral in Paris. Only a handful of people gathered for the services in a tiny Montmartre church, and Mary Cassatt railed against the French press and the president of the republic for not taking proper notice of the man she called the greatest painter of the nineteenth century.
Peace found her much older, and, because of the deaths of Degas and James Stillman, very much alone. And, ironically, this woman who had been so much a part of the movement that had revolutionized nineteenth-century art had no sympathy for the new school, the cubists, who were now dominating French painting. The great patron and publicist of that art, Gertrude Stein, had wanted very much to meet Mary Cassatt; she felt that what she was doing for Matisse and Picasso was similar to what Mary Cassatt had done for Manet and Degas three decades earlier. And they had another thing in common—they had both been born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. A mutual friend arranged for Mary Cassatt to attend one of Miss Stein’s famous evenings in her apartment in the Rue de Fleury. There those two extraordinary Americans met. Afterward Mary Cassatt was introduced to the others present and then moved about the drawing room, peering at the famous Stein collection. “I have never in my life seen so many dreadful paintings in one place. I have never seen so many dreadful people gathered together,” she suddenly announced, “and I want to be taken home at once.”
As the twenties progressed Mary Cassatt’s vision failed to the point where she could no longer distinguish objects. Yet she had little use for selfpity. An old friend, Forbes Watson, who visited her in the apartment she kept in Paris, found her looking “like a woman who had worked.” After a lively conversation that covered such subjects as Woodrow Wilson, whom she described in unprintable terms, and socialism, which she favored, a maid brought in tea and toast and a large pot of strawberry jam, a prized product of her Beaufresne beds. “If there is any jam on the table,” Mary Cassatt said, “help yourself.” It was only then that her guest realized that she was totally blind.
The last year of her life was cheered by her inclusion in a great exhibition, “Fifty Years of French Painting,” held at the Louvre. Only Whistler among American artists had achieved such international recognition. George Biddle visited Beaufresne in the winter of 1926, a few months before Mary Cassatt’s death, and found her bedridden but alert. She could not join him in the dining room, but she sent a note. She hoped that the Chateau Margot was good; it was the last bottle of a case her brother Gardner had given her. That spring, shortly after her eighty-second birthday, Mary Cassatt died. Her old friend Vollard went out to Beaufresne and before the funeral wandered through the house. Its walls were hung with bright echoes of her life—Japanese prints, her own paintings, and many Degas. Outside he could hear the village band playing alternately “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the “Marseillaise.” What a full, what a productive life, Vollard thought. There was no cause here for sadness:
In the cemetery, after the last prayers, the pastor, according to protestant custom, distributed to those present the roses and carnations strewn upon the coffin, that they might scatter them over the grave. Looking at this carpet of brilliant flowers, I fancied Mary Cassatt running to fetch a canvas and brushes.