Mary Cassatt: The artist who painted mothers

This is an essay on a tiny fraction of the evocative work of Mary Cassatt: the only American to be included as part of the Impressionist movement in Paris.

To be American AND to be female AND to be included in the male-club, the avant garde brotherhood and "outsiders" known as The Impressionists, was a distinction she alone held.

In contrast to her soft, gentle, tender portraits of women and children, Cassatt was an intense, focused artist who waged a lifelong mission to be accepted as an artist (and not a "female" artist). She was a suffragette, and today we'd call her a feminist.

"Mary Cassatt has character, but she also has force."


​Paul Gauguin, American Artist, May 1999, Stephen May.


A Bit of Background on Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was born in what is now Pittsburgh, PA. Her early years were spent traveling in Europe with her family.

At age 13 in Paris, Cassatt saw a window display featuring several pieces by Degas. It "transformed her vision. 'I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art,' she later wrote. 'It changed my life. I saw art then, as I wanted to see it.'"

Her parents undoubtedly wanted a traditional, respectable role for her; probably as a wife and mother. But Mary had other dreams. On return to the US, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. And then, after the end of the US Civil War, she convinced her parents to allow her to study in Paris. I presume they thought it was a temporary youthful fling.

In Paris, the subjects of her art and the objects she included were the scenes she was able to participate in. She was not allowed to visit the salons and dance halls like Sargent or Toulouse-Lautrec.

She focused on models who were readily available to her — her sisters, mother and other women she came in contact with.

Although we think of these images as children with their mothers, often they were children with their nurses. That doesn't matter to how we appreciate her work, but it may have made it easier for Cassatt to cross paths with these nurses and nannies at shops, or at the many public gardens in Paris. So, by necessity, her subject matter was influenced by the availability of these models.

Looking for painting commissions in about 1871, Cassatt traveled to Chicago, but lost many of her early pieces in the devastating Chicago fire that same year.

Shortly afterward, to her relief, she received a commission from the Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh to travel to Parma, Italy to paint. After her lack of sales and bad luck in the US she was eager to return to Europe.

"O how wild I am to get to work, my fingers farely [sic] itch & my eyes water to see a fine picture again."


​Mary Cassatt, MaryCassatt.org​


From that time on she spent most of her life in Paris. In her later life, she spent time in her country home outside Paris. There, with her expansive home and garden, she painted and met with friends and family. It was to be Cassatt's equivalent to Monet's garden and his heaven on earth, Giverny.

Mary Cassatt, 1913. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library. I don't know if this was taken at her country estate, but it seems plausible based on the date, her attire, and the casual setting of the chair placed on the path. Additionally, the parasol for the sun suggests she may have been out strolling or painting.
Mary Cassatt, 1913. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library. I don't know if this was taken at her country estate, but it seems plausible based on the date, her attire, and the casual setting of the chair placed on the path. Additionally, the parasol for the sun suggests she may have been out strolling or painting.

Cassatt never married and eventually had to give up painting due to her declining eyesight. She continued to consult and serve as an advisor for collectors throughout the rest of her life.

Mary Cassatt and her Mothers and Children

Cassatt was focused on technique and creating art in her voice; in a style that was to be her own, but that was yet to be developed.

Cassatt painted in watercolor and oils. She also worked in drawing, pastels. drypoint intaglio, and lithography, among other media she dabbled in.

We think of her as a traditional-style artist because her portraits are so sweet and intimate and we have seen them all our lives. Yet she was a rebel, and edgy and experimental in her art.

Doesn't that seem odd? Impressionism has been around for 150 years so it is accepted and in no way provocative to us now. To Parisians visiting the Salon exhibits in 1870s, it was WILD!

"Mother with Child Seen from Behind," Mary Cassatt, drypoint, 1890. From the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design.
"Mother with Child Seen from Behind," Mary Cassatt, drypoint, 1890.

From the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design.

She was influenced by her instructors; by the influence of Japanese culture and Japonismé; by the artists around her beginning to coalesce into the impressionist movement; and especially by Edgar Degas. (For more on Japonismé and it's influence on Whistler, Sargent, Cassatt, and others in Paris at the time, read my recent post.)

The Impressionist movement was originally called the "Independents" or the "Intransigents" because they were discarding the rules and expectations to be accepted in Salon exhibitions in Paris. A group of artists including Cassatt, Monet, Degas, Manet, and many others were being excluded from the Salon. Rather than continuing to be excluded from future Salons, and continue sit on the sidelines, they started holding their own exhibitions in 1874. They launched this first show under the umbrella of "The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Printmakers, etc."

This was a major upheaval in the traditional art industry and created tremendous notoriety and buzz. Some of these artists were desperately poor at the time. This was a long shot but a necessity to allow the critics and public to see their work and hopefully generate enough revenue to buy food, pay rent, and secure more materials for their next paintings. For many it was the last chance to survive as artists.

Why They Were Called Impressionists

These outsiders, the Impressionists, tended to paint outside in the open air, "a plein air."

They used dabs of pure unblended color to create an array of colors for the eye to latch on and perceive the combined effect. Some critics thought the Impressionists must have an eye disease or mental disability to so poorly apply their paint in dots and dashes of color.

I have to stop here and explain how difficult it is to NOT mix your paint as you create a painting. Just like you casually stir your coffee after you add cream or sugar, if I asked you NOT to stir your coffee then handed you a spoon, soon, you would be stirring your coffee. It's trained instinct. Put paint in front of an artist and a brush in her hand, and soon she will be mixing the paint. You can hardly stop yourself. So the decision to not mix your paint — to add pure blobs of color to the canvas, to not cover all the canvas — was radical and against years of training. It was a bold, conscious act of confronting expectations. I'm sure even the artists were uncomfortable and unsure about this breaking away from the expected. This was jaw dropping stuff.

So, most of the public and critics were confused, uncomfortable, and upset about the Impressionists.

There were a few fans of the new movement. Some praised the work due to the spontaneity of the paint application. The diverse and unusual subject matter appealed to others. And, one of the harshest criticisms — the unfinished look — became an important positive attribute to others.

Ok... another sidebar....

"Without paint in tubes there would have been… nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionists.’"

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, from the Winsor & Newton History of the Metal Paint Tube​.

The ability to transport paint in metal tubes to plein air locations was a game changer in art history.

Cassatt's Impressionist Paintings

One of my favorite paintings, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, was painted by Cassatt for the Impressionist Exhibit of 1878. You can see how she used quick rough strokes and blobs of paint to indicate the pattern in the chairs and even the patterns in the child's slip and skirt. The girl's facial features are not precise and her dog is simply a fluff in a chair with a couple dark dots for eyes. Take a moment to mentally compare this to some of John Singer Sargent's formal portraits of the same era. You can see why this Impressionist work was shocking and insulting to Parisians in 1878.

But, to us, isn't it charming?

Little Girl in the Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt, 1878.
Little Girl in the Blue Armchair, Mary Cassatt, 1878.

The positioning of the child, shown as she must have thrown herself onto the chair in frustration or feigned insouciance is so resoundingly childlike. The expression on her face!

There are issues we could discuss about other elements in the painting: What kind of arrangement of furniture is it in this room? What kind of a room is this? Where is this light coming from that creates a "halo" of light around only the child? We could discuss other features of this unique painting. But the attitude of this child is perfection.

​Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, Mary Cassatt, 1895. Pastel painting. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, NY.
Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, Mary Cassatt, 1895. Pastel painting.

From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

"Young Mother Sewing," Mary Cassatt, 1900. Oil on canvas. From the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
"Young Mother Sewing," Mary Cassatt, 1900. Oil on canvas.
From the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Regarding Young Mother Sewing:


"Cassatt enlisted two unrelated models to enact the roles of mother and child for this painting. Louisine Havemeyer, who purchased it in 1901, remarked on its truthfulness: 'Look at that little child that has just thrown herself against her mother’s knee, regardless of the result and oblivious to the fact that she could disturb ‘her mamma.’ And she is quite right, she does not disturb her mother. Mamma simply draws back a bit and continues to sew.'”


From the online description of the painting in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

​"Nurse and Child," Mary Cassatt, 1896-97. From the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Pastel on wove paper mounted on canvas.
​"Nurse and Child," Mary Cassatt, 1896-97.
From the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Pastel on wove paper mounted on canvas.

But soon Cassatt was moving away from any defined movement and creating art in a style that suited herself. Other Impressionists were following their own muses too and branching out from the short-lived Impressionist movement into Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Pointillism and others.

​The Boating Party, Mary Cassatt. 1878. From the collection of The National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.
​The Boating Party
, Mary Cassatt. 1878.
From the collection of The National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

"The Boating Party" is considered a Post-Impressionist work by Mary Cassatt. Notice there is a definite use of blocks of color, perhaps incorporating the Japonisme influence. The softness of the features of the woman and the child are minimized while the impact of the painting comes from the brilliant colors and unusual composition. The man rowing is almost covering up the albeit awkward view of the infant — traditionally a focal point in Cassatt's many "Madonna-like" positions of mother and child. The high vantage point defies logic: where are we as the viewer standing to see the scene at this angle? We would almost have to be on a dock overhanging the boat —which isn't very likely. It is an imaginary viewpoint.

The Impressionist movement, from a historical "20/20 hindsight" is identified to have lasted only 12 years, from 1874-1886. A small blip in the art history continuum, yet its ripples continue to influence artists today.

The auction record I could find for highest sale price for a Cassatt was $6,200,000 USD for "Children Playing with a Dog," sold at Christies, New York, 2007.

​Children Playing with a Dog, Mary Cassatt, 1907. Image from Christie's Catalogue for 2007 Auction.
​Children Playing with a Dog
, Mary Cassatt, 1907.
Image from Christie's Catalogue for 2007 Auction.

In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Legion d'honneur in 1904.

A quote from Mary Cassatt on the artist Camille Pissarro:

"He was such a professor that he could have taught stones to draw correctly,”


Mary Cassatt


Thinking happy thoughts for mothers and aunties, and sisters and daughters, and anyone feeling that wonderful rush of nurturing, loving, and compassion to care for those around us.


For my readers with a quest to know more about Mary Cassatt, her family and their context in history, as well as women's place in art today, here you go....

Cassatt with Some of Our Other Favorite Characters of the Gilded Age: John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Railroad Barons

Cassatt's path in life seems similar to that of John Singer Sargent's. He was born 1856, 12 years after Cassatt, and died a year before she did.

Although Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, he too was American and spent most of his life in Paris. Both families were from Pennsylvania. His parents had lived in Philadelphia and sailed to Europe in 1854, for health and recuperation following the death of an infant daughter. He spent most of the balance of his life living in Paris or London and traveling on commissioned assignments or to take advantage of cooler locations, such as the Alps, in the summer, and interesting historical places, such as Venice, in the winters.

He was on the sidelines of the Impressionist group and was a great friend of many in that group, including Monet and Manet. During the initial years, he was focusing on his commissioned portraits. He was not considered an Impressionist by other members in the group, and never exhibited with the group. During the peak formative years of Impressionism, Sargent fled to London from Paris after the disastrous review of his daring painting, "Madame X."

Cassatt, Sargent and Whistler all knew each other in Paris, and circulated in the same circles of salons, restaurants, operas, and exhibits. (For more on Whistler and his mother, read my related post)

A. J. Cassatt (1839-1906) was Mary Cassatt's older brother. Alexander was always held up to Mary as the successful member of the family; the individual who made the name Cassatt famous, and a titan of industry. He was the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was responsible for the building of the "Pennsylvania Railroad tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers and the subsequent construction of the magnificent and irreplaceable Penn Station."

Portraits of Alexander (A. J.) Cassatt were painted by John Singer Sargent and several were painted by Mary Cassatt. At the time, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest corporation in the world.

Ah...all that railroad money!

Alexander (A .J.) Cassatt. Oil portrait painted by John Singer Sargent.
Alexander (A. J.) Cassatt. Oil portrait painted by John Singer Sargent.

The portrait of Mrs. Alexander Cassatt (A. J.'s wife) below was painted by James McNeill Whistler. To those familiar with Whistler's work, this portrait shows Whistler's focus on monochromatic neutrals. (Read more about Whistler's neutrals)

Arrangement in Black, No. 8: Portrait of Mrs. Cassatt, by James McNeill Whistler. In a private collection: Archives of the Whistler Painting Project, University of Glasgow.
Arrangement in Black, No. 8: Portrait of Mrs. Cassatt, by James McNeill Whistler. In a private collection: Archives of the Whistler Painting Project, University of Glasgow.

I wonder if there was an affinity between Whistler and A. J. Cassatt since Whistler's father was an early leader in the railroad industry in the US, and was hired to develop the railroad system in Russian, which he did.

At the time of the commissioning of the portrait of Mrs. Cassatt, Mary Cassatt is reported in a diary to have said to John Singer Sargent, (and, I presume ironically...) "It is a good thing to have a portrait by Whistler in the family." But, on the other hand, as she was an admirer of her contemporary artists, perhaps she was saying it with due appreciation. I think it was ironic.

Cassatt and Women's Place in Art History

In her lifetime, as it continues to a degree today, it was difficult to break out of the cubbyhole that designated a woman in the arts as a hobbyist, and, therefore, obviously, not to be taken seriously.

According to the New York Times, "In the past decade [2008-2018], only 11 percent of all work acquired by the country’s top museums was by women."

Additionally from reporting by several major art museums, as of 2018, only "14 percent of all exhibitions were either solo shows featuring female artists or group exhibitions in which the majority of artists were female."

These facts are from research conducted by Artnet, and “In Other Words,” a podcast and newsletter produced by Art Agency, Partners, an art advisory firm acquired by Sotheby’s.

Think of how curious it would be to hear an announcement of a major exhibit with the promotional line, "An exhibit featuring exclusively male artists!"

But...I digress :-) A topic for another day!


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