When I began reading Mary Cassatt A Life, I had virtually no historical knowledge of Mary Cassatt’s life and only brief encounters with her work. Ms. Mathews provides a broad view of Mary’s personal, professional life. She supplies family background, historical context, and details Cassatt’s relationships not only with her family and friends but with other artists. Mary’s problematic professional relationship with Edgar Degas, her empathy with Camille Pissarro, and her deep bond with her sister Lydia flow in and out of the account of this American expatriate artist’s life. There is no smoothing over of her quick temper, her inability, at times to tactfully interact with friends and family often with lifelong fractures in some of those relationships. This biography is a broad, forthright portrayal.
The book follows the progress of her work from art school in Philadelphia to her final pastels which she accomplished despite failing health and progressive loss of vision. Her willingness to mentor young artists and her disdain for exhibit juries is illustrated well in this passage:
She became even more eloquent when she was asked the following year to serve again for the Carnegie Institute. She allowed that the jury system assured some measure of quality, but, she said, that was merely a ‘high average’. That might do for other fields of endeavor, but ‘in art what we want is the certainty that the one spark of original genius shall not be extinguished, that is better than average excellence, that is what will survive, what it is essential to foster.’ On the same principles of fairness and equal opportunity, she disapproved of prizes other than those given in cash to young, struggling students and thus also refused the Lippincott and Harris prizes awarded her in 1904. The Harris Prize of five hundred dollars was at her request turned over to Alan Philbrick, who had recently graduated from the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and was currently working in Paris. (page 268)
The book shows that the same struggles that many artists encounter today were present in her career. Her struggle to be allowed to paint in her own style, difficulty in selling her work, criticism from art critics as well, at times, from her contemporary artistic circle. The interweaving of struggles of those artists shows that it was not only Cassatt whose work was often disliked or misunderstood.
Why should people there [Berlin] be interested in my paintings when even in Paris where I am known, known by everybody, people scorn or don’t understand them. Moreover, as a result of this incomprehension I myself am ending up by wondering whether my work isn’t poor and empty, without a hint of talent. It is said that money is scarce, but that is only relatively true: doesn’t Monet sell his work, and at very high prices, don’t Renoir and Degas sell? No, like Sisley, I remain in the rear of the impressionist line. – Camille Pissarro (page 240)
She struggled with periodic doubts and despair. Even though she had received acceptance into the Salon, in 1871 she was still and ‘unsold artist’. She even considered giving up that same year while in the country with her family in America. The book quotes her as stating, “‘ I am too ravenous for money & am determined to try & make some, not by painting though. I have fully made up my mind that it [is] impossible for me unless I choose to set to work & manufacture pictures by the aid of photographs. I have given up my studio & torn up my father’s portrait, & have not touched a brush for six weeks nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe.'” But she did not quit but instead ‘shopped around’ her paintings she had in a New York gallery eventually gaining a commission in Pittsburgh (to paint two copies of Correggio’s paintings). That three hundred dollar commission was enough to get her back to Europe and support her for six months. She would spend eight years traveling in Italy, Spain, Holland and Belgium before settling in France at age thirty. At this point she began to create portraits for exhibit and sale where she had previously not considered doing so.
The manner of telling Cassatt’s ‘story’ is broadened by the inclusion of the history of movements (and her reaction to some of them) along with her interactions with artists, dealers, and elite collectors over her lifetime. Her reaction to the modernist movement was scathing, especially in regard to the work of Matisse:
In explaining her negative view of Matisse and the Cubists, she attacked the quality of the art, the use of sensational and manipulative tactics to make it known, and the mistaken assumption that initial rejection is a sign of great art, since it once happened to the Impressionists. Matisse, she felt, was unable to master the Impressionist style in his early days, so he got the idea of developing a style in which he would not have the competition of truly great artists, and would achieve fame and notoriety. ….When the advocates of the new style claimed Impressionism as its ancestor, Cassatt really put her foot down. This style, she said, is admired by those ignorant of art and rejected by artists, and rejected by the public, ‘no sound artist ever looked except with scorn at these cubists and Matisse. (page 283)
Something Cassatt had to overcome, which is less of an issue today, was being a woman artist. While education in the arts was accepted and promoted for women the true social expectation was expressed by a fellow female artist’s father. In a letter “he wrote: ‘You will get married and settle down into a good housekeeper like all married women & send off your paints to the garret!'”. The acceptance of female artists in France, especially Paris, was perhaps the main reason for Mary living there the majority of her life. But even there she experienced depression and despair to the point of even destroying works when she felt her agent was not representing her appropriately. Even with the works that have been lost or destroyed we still have numerous lovely portraits to enjoy because this independent artist would not let loss, defeat, criticism, prejudice, or even failing health prevent her from following her passion.