December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
“I do not admit that a woman can draw like that,” said Degas when he saw one of her pictures
At eight o’clock on the evening of June 14, 1926, a very old woman—blind and suffering from advanced diabetes—died in her chateau on the edge of the tiny village of Mesnil-Theribus, some thirty miles northwest of Paris. At her funeral, because she held the Legion of Honor, there was a detail of soldiers, and because she was chatelaine of the manor house, the village band played and most of the townspeople followed her coffin to the cemetery. There was nothing extraordinary in this; it is a not uncommon ritual in the villages of France. But an observant visitor to the old woman’s chateau and to the cemetery in which she was buried would have been struck by two quite astonishing things. In the beautiful high rooms of the house were paintings of a rare quality—paintings by Monet, Pissarro, and Courbet—and on the tomb in which she was laid to rest was this inscription: Sépulture de la Famille CASSATT native de Pennsylvanie États-Unis de l’Amérique
For the old woman buried on that June day in the heart of France was an American and a painter, one of our finest painters—Mary Cassatt, born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1844. Allegheny City was not a bad place in which to be born; the first suburb of Pittsburgh, it was the home of the newly rich bankers, merchants, and industrialists who were anxious to escape the noise and fumes that had produced their wealth. And Mary Cassatt’s family was at the very heart of its world. Two years later her father, Robert, would become mayor of Allegheny City, and her mother, Katherine, was a highly cultivated woman whose love of France had a profound effect on her daughter.
But Mary Cassatt was never really to know Allegheny, for her father, who had a small independent income from real estate and other investments, preferred travel and leisure to the daily routine of his brokerage business or to public office. In 1851, when Mary was seven, the Cassatts embarked for an extended stay in Europe. This European excursion had a lifelong effect on the young girl, for during the family’s stop in Paris a responsive chord was struck in her, bringing alive, as it were, her Huguenot ancestry. All her life she was fascinated by those Cossarts- the original spelling of the name- who had, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, emigrated from Normandy to Holland to New Amsterdam. And it was a propitious moment to have one’s imagination fired by French grandeur; while the Cassatts were staying at the Hotel Continental on the Rue de Rivoli, Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Napoleon, proclaimed himself emperor and thus ushered in the glittering splendors of the Second Empire.
After a stay in Paris the Cassatts lived for several years in Germany, where Mary’s brother Alexander attended the prestigious Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt. But by 1855 the family was anxious to get back to Paris. The leading attraction of the city that year was the vast Exposition Universelle that Napoleon in had organized in order to proclaim the success of his regime. For the first time at a world’s fair there was a huge international art section of works chosen by a special jury, with the honors divided between the great classicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and the romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. But what was even more remarkable was the Pavilion of Realism, set up independently by Gustave Courbet to exhibit his own work after three of his paintings had been rejected by the official jury as “ugly.” Here, in marked contrast to the hollow prettiness of many of the entries in the international art section, were forty-four works representing, in Courbet’s words, “real and existing objects.” Mary Cassatt was never to forget the sight of them.
Late that year the family returned to the United States, eventually settling in a house near the present Philadelphia City Hall. Alexander was soon enrolled in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, studying civil engineering in preparation for the career he already planned for himself as a railroad man. After his graduation in 1859 he emerged as the real head of the family. In a letter written the next year he states that the family will soon be able to go to Europe “and leave me here to work for you.” From this same letter it is clear that Mary Cassatt had already decided to become an artist, for her brother writes: “In three years Mary will want to go to Rome to study. …” She had indeed made this decision, but the coming of the Civil War forced the family to postpone any quick return to Europe, and in the fall of 1861 Mary Cassatt became a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
The Academy, one of the few art schools in the United States, had a distinguished history stretching back to 1805, when it opened with a display of casts of sculpture from the Louvre, a display whose nudity so shocked decorous Philadelphia that the managers set aside one day each week for female visitors when the figures were modestly covered with sheets. This combination of prudery and conservatism still persisted in the 1860’s, and the curriculum consisted primarily of copying approved Roman and Greek plaster casts. Mary Cassatt found the school ledious, as did her fellow studenl Thomas Eakins, who, several years laier, lost his teaching job there because he insisied that his students work from nude models.
With the end of the Civil War Mary Cassatt decided thai it was time for her lo go to Europe to study. Her father’s reaction, however, was by no means enthusiastic. Obviously he had thought it a girlish idea that she would outgrow. It was not that Robert Cassatt was averse to Europe—indeed, he adored it—or to art; but knowing the prejudices of Philadelphia society, he feared that his daughter would be marked for life as an eccentric or, worse, a bohemian. But Mary, once her mind was made up, was a strong and determined character. In 1866 her father finally gave her permission to go to Paris, but her life there was to be strictly circumscribed. She lived with proper family friends, was visited by both her mother and her sister, Lydia, and moved only in the company of other Americans of “good” family.
Mary Cassatt had hoped to be inspired by the instruction she would receive in France, but she was disappointed. The training of artists in Paris, while on a much higher level than in Philadelphia, was extremely academic. The young American entered the studio of Charles Chaplin, a distinguished portrait painter attached to the official École des Beaux Arts who had made his mark by decorating one of the Empress Eugénie’s drawing rooms with a pink-toned Triumph of Flora. The routine at the atelier Chaplin, as at all the studios of the artists attached to the École, was for the students to copy nude models for six hours every day except Sunday. If a pupil pleased his master, that is, if he painted as nearly as possible like him, then one of his paintings might be admitted to the official annual Salon, there to hang with some one thousand similar works. Since the age of Louis XIV there had been no other road to artistic success in France. Mary Cassatt soon realized thai lhe highly polished, suave slyle of Charles Chaplin was not lhe way she wanted to paint.
But if lhe alelier Chaplin was a bil dull, Paris was noi. For a woman in her Iwenlies lhe cily was a wondrous place where lhe imperial fele of Napoleon in and his empress provided a never-ending banquel for lhe eyes and ears of all those in the capilal. The most lasting impression of these years for Mary Cassatt was of Paris’ incredibly rich artistic life, something she cherished, thrived on, and knew that she could not live without. In addition to all the official artists of the École—painters and sculptors like Jean Léon Gérôme, Adolphe William Bouguereau, and Jean Baptiste Carpeaux—exciting new men were making their appearance. There was Édouard Manet, whose Déjeuner sur l’Herbe , depicting a picnic at which a young lady was totally nude, shocked even Paris; Claude Monet, already experimenting with color in such a way as to make impressionism inevitable; and Edgar Degas, striving for the effect of spontaneity while still paying homage to the great tradition of French drawing. At a café near the Place Clichy these men, who would one day be Mary Cassatt’s friends, were already meeting regularly with other artists who shared their revolutionary views—Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
This stay in France irrevocably convinced Mary Cassatt that she was a serious artist, a professional. In a letter written to her brother’s new wife, Lois Buchanan, a niece of the President, she was scathing about a dilettantish friend: ”…she is only an amateur and you must know we professionals despise amateurs. …” And though Chaplin was not her ideal, she worked hard, sending home a steady stream of paintings. But Mary Cassatt’s second stay in France was about to be brought to an abrupt end. In the summer of 1870 Bismarck lured Napoleon in into a disastrous war with Prussia, and, with France in chaos, the young painter reluctantly returned to Philadelphia. There she did portraits of most of the family, as well as a fine head of her parents’ black servant. In the fall of 1871 she set out for Chicago, the El Dorado of the prairie, in the hope of selling some of her work. It turned out to be a most disappointing visit, for her paintings were burned. Having left Europe to escape the holocaust of war, she had arrived in Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire.
From the beginning Mary Cassatt had viewed her return to Philadelphia as merely a visit home, a brief interlude until she could resume her real life in Europe. She needed fellow artists to talk to and a society that accepted a painter as readily as it accepted a lawyer or a doctor or a banker. She needed Europe. It was a longing experienced by many of the young American artists of the period—Henry James, Theodore Robinson, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to name but three.
And Mary Cassatt needed art museums, a fledgling concept in the America of the seventies. Years later she stated this point bluntly: “When I was young our museums had no great paintings for the students to study.” Like most of the artists who would be her friends, she felt that the only important instruction came from studying the works of great painters and copying them. This could be done only in Europe.
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.
Fortunately the Salon was no longer the only center of the Parisian art world. Beginning in 1874 a group, one of whose leaders was her idol Degas, had begun holding independent exhibitions. They called themselves The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, and their shows, which attracted thousands of people, were the most exciting artistic events in Paris. Not that the critics gave their approval. At the very first, Monet’s dazzling Impression, Sunrise was the object of a jeering label that soon attached itself to all the exhibitors—impressionist. And after viewing the 1876 exhibition the critic for the prestigious Le Figaro wrote:
The Rue Le Peletier is an unfortunate street. The Opera House burned down, and now a new disaster has fallen upon the quarter. There has opened at Durand-Ruel’s an exhibition said to be of paintings. The innocent visitor enters and a cruel spectacle startles him. Here five or six lunatics, one of them a woman, have elected to show their pictures. There are visitors who burst into laughter when they see these objects, but for my part, I am saddened by them. These so-called artists term themselves intransigeants, impressionistes . They take paint, brushes, and canvases, throw a few colours on the surface at random, and sign their names. In the same way insane persons pick up pebbles on the road and believe they are diamonds.
Indeed, they were shocking to a public used to the fine brushwork, obvious composition, and approved subjects—often historical—of the typical Salon painter. Here, instead, by use of bold brushstrokes, a variegated surface, and subtle composition, the new artists attempted to capture their first impression of the most ordinary things: a bunch of flowers, a haystack, a ballet dancer. They were, in fact, the heirs of the great Courbet. Always looking for new painters to show in the exhibitions, Degas had not forgotten Mary Cassatt, and in 1877 he asked a friend to introduce them. The meeting took place in the American’s studio, and after an hour of studying her pictures Degas invited her to join his friends. Mary Cassatt did not hesitate: “Finally,” she wrote, “I could work with absolute independence wilhoul concern for lhe evenlual opinion of a jury. Already I had recognized lhose who were my lrue masters. I admired Manel, Courbet, and Degas. I detested convenlional art. I began to live.”
Degas is the key to Mary Cassatt’s life. Her work was deeply influenced by his theory thai a painting was “an original combination of lines and lones which set each other off,” she concurred in his admiration of lhe greal French draftsman Ingres, and she shared his enthusiasm for the Italian masters—Parmigiano, Giotto, and Fra Angelico. As their friendship ripened Degas visited her sludio almosl daily, crilicizing her work; and in one inslance al least, Little Girl in the Blue Armchair , he actually painted in some of the background. His lelters are filled with recommendations to dealers and friends to buy her paintings and lithographs. And, in 1879, he paid her the supreme compliment of asking her to join with him and Pissarro in launching ajournai that would feature splendidly reproduced prints by famous artists. The journal, which was to be called Le Jour et La Nuit , was never launched, but under Degas’ inspiration Mary Cassatt began drawing on copper, producing wonderful dry points of her mother, father, sister, and a hoard of nieces and nephews, a collection that is one of the great records of an American artist’s family. Degas’ contribution to the stillborn journal were two prints—both of Mary Cassatt. Later he did a painting of his American friend in which she is shown leaning forward, a smile on her witty face, one of her beloved elaborate hats on her head, and in her hands three photographs probably laken by Degas himself, who was an enlhusiaslic cameraman. This was nol lhe only time Degas painted Mary Cassatt. Once, after Louisine Elder recognized her in one of his “milliner” piclures, she asked if Mary often posed for her friend. “When he finds lhe movemenl difficull, and lhe model cannot seem Io gel his idea,” she replied. Unforlunalely, Mary Cassatt destroyed the one porlrail she painled of Degas.
As for lhe personal side of lheir relationship, il is impossible Io slale precisely ils limils. From lhe firsl lhere seems to have been a special intimacy belween lhem, perhaps due Io lhe sinking similarity of lheir backgrounds; for, unlike mosl of lhe other artisls of lhe impressionisl coterie, lhey came from comparatively well-off families, lhough lheir falhers—Degas’ was a banker—were bolh somewhat feckless. And lhere was anolher bond. Degas’ mother was an American, and he visited his malernal relatives in New Orleans in 1872. Now and lhen he and Mary Cassatt spoke of louring the United States togelher. But their personal lives were always shielded by an impenetrable privacy. “He never indulged in personal gossip,” Ambroise Vollard, the distinguished picture dealer and friend of both, commented when asked about Degas. And Mary Cassatt, at the end of her life, destroyed all of Degas’ letters to her as she had destroyed her portrait of him, apparently as a means of preserving inviolate their personal privacy. Louisine Elder called this a great pity, for “no one understood him better.” In the few letters of Mary Cassatt to Degas that have survived, there is a scrupulous avoidance of anything personal. It is only in Degas’ letters to other people that we have a glimpse of his feelings toward his American friend. In one he worries because she has taken a ground-floor studio and might find it unhealthy; in another he is in a frenzy of concern because she has had a fall from a horse. But it is in a letter to Count Ludovic Lepic, a painter friend who was also a famous breeder of dogs, that we have Degas’ feelings revealed best of all. Both he and Mary Cassatt shared a deep passion for animals, and Degas even composed a sonnet in honor of her parrot, Coco. In this letter, though he is ostensibly asking for a dog, Degas sounds as though he is expressing love:
I think it only right that I should inform you that the person who wants this dog is Mlle Cassatt [ sic ], that she has turned to me in this matter because I am known for the quality of my dogs and my affection for them, similar to my affection for old friends, etc., etc. I don’t think it is necessary for me to give you any information about her. …
This distinguished person, by whose friendship I am as honored as you would be in my place, has asked me to be sure that you send her a young dog, young enough to love her.
Although not all of their biographers agree, Pierre Cabanne, who wrote a life of Degas, insisted that there was something physical between them. He felt that the similarity of their tastes and interests and their almost identical intellectual dispositions were “to transform their friendly relations into a love affair, the duration and intensity of which we know nothing.” Just how difficult indeed it would be to know is revealed by Daniel Halévy, whose father, Ludovic—a librettist for Offenbach—was one of Degas’ closest friends:
Miss Cassatt was an old friend. … We assumed that they were close friends. … Never did I hear Miss Cassatt’s name on Degas’s lips. During the severe winter of 1917 it was Miss Cassatt who informed the family that the presence of a woman was necessary at the bedside of the dying painter.
Over the years there were a number of women Degas was interested in, including a cousin of Halévy’s to whom he proposed, and Mary Cassatt had at least one suitor, James Stillman, the fabulously rich head of the National City Bank, who, after the turn of the century, wanted to marry her. But the relationship between Degas and Cassatt was a very special one. After Degas’ death she wrote to a friend: “His death is a deliverance but I am sad, he was my oldest friend here. …”
If one is looking for a reason why they never married—each other or anyone else—it is to be found in their old-fashioned sense of family responsibility, a responsibility both accepted without question. In 1878, the year after Degas met Mary Cassatt, his brother committed suicide on the floor of the Bourse, the French stock exchange, in Paris. He had gone bankrupt. The scandal to the noble de Gas family—as it was originally spelled—was such that the painter’s sister moved to South America, and he, though he had no legal obligation to do so, spent years paying off all his brolher’s debts. The effect of this was to lurn Degas into something of a miser and to bring out misanlhropic elemenls in his characler. It also made him pul out of his mind all ideas of marriage. In 1896, when Daniel Halévy told him that he was going to be married, Degas commented sadly: “Oh, yes. I am alone. … It’s a good thing to marry.”
And in the same year in which she met Degas, a large part of Mary Cassatt’s family moved to Paris, suddenly making her responsible for a highly eccentric father, an ailing mother, and a semi-invalid sister. She was not to be free again until after her mother’s death in 1895. This is not to say that the Cassatts were not a devoted and close-knit family, for they were. They loved Paris, art, and one another; and they provided Mary with a place to live and with free and willing models, a not unimportant saving when the family’s modest circumstances were considered.
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.
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.
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.…”
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.