Mary Cassatt


Two Women Throwing Flowers, 1872, Oil on Canvas

All she wanted to do was be an artist. Her parents were against it, but she was stubborn. Mary Cassatt managed to get accepted to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at fifteen years old. Women students were not allowed to use live models there. The teachers there, all male, and the students, eighty percent male, took it as truth that the women students were not serious. They were wrong.

She rode it out through the years of the Civil War, but in the end decided the level of instruction was not worth her time. She decided to study the old masters in Europe. Her father objected vigorously, but Mary prevailed. She just wanted to be an artist.

We’ll skip all the details. The French art schools did not accept women. Single women could not hang out with the other artists at the cafes without suffering ruinous damage to their reputations. Mary managed somehow to be accepted as a student by  Jean-Léon Gérôme. Over time she managed to befriend and be accepted by the great impressionists who, like Mary, were struggling in those days to be taken seriously. Mary prevailed. She just wanted to be an artist.

Lydia in a Loge, Wearing a Pearl Necklace

Lydia in a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879, Oil on Canvas

We’ll skip the usual crap. We’ll skip how her father, over and over, countered every artistic step forward with another lecture, another restriction, another round of badgering. Give him his due. For his time he was almost enlightened. He did not disown Mary, he just insisted she survive off the proceeds of her ridiculous career. He would see that she didn’t starve, but he was damned if he’d buy the paints and the canvases. Yet, he paid to have her mother stay again and again with her in Europe. He supported her sister Lydia’s extended visits with Mary. But Mary probably suspected these concessions were more to protect his own family name than through any real sense of concern or affection. A man of his stature and position could not afford to be known for a daughter living in scandalous circumstances, now could he? Did this hurt her? We don’t really know; Mary Cassatt was a strong and private woman. We only know that in the end, Mary prevailed. She just wanted to be an artist.

Mother Combing Her Child's Hair, 1901, Pastel and gouache on paper

It has been almost one hundred, sixty-eight years since that fifteen year old girl struggled to convince her disapproving father to let her paint.



I became an unapologetic feminist with the first breath of my first daughter. The idea that anyone in the world might keep her from her dreams on the simple grounds that he was a man and she was a woman enraged me. Yet, I have no doubt I have been just as chuckle-headed as Mary’s father with my own girls. Men are sometimes protective beyond common sense. But I don’t think I have ever told them what they could or could not achieve. And I certainly never tried to hinder them in the ordinary business of living.

Lydia Leaning Forward in the Balcony, 1879-1880, Pastel on paper

The reason we can “skip the usual crap” in Mary Cassatt’s story above and have you know what I mean is that it remains the “usual crap” today. One hundred, sixty-eight years on and things are much the same. Much worse in many parts of the world.

I’m not a big fan of  the Clintons, but then I’m not a big fan of any politicians. Nevertheless, here is something Hillary said recently that struck me as straight and to the point: “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me, but they all seem to. No matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim, they want to control women.”

At every turn of Mary Cassatt’s life there always seemed to be some impediment, some special obstruction just for women which made things that tiny, maddening bit more difficult. Yet, through it all, Mary prevailed. Because she just wanted to be an artist. Is it any wonder that out of so many portraits, hardly any are of men?

Below is a picture of what, apparently, is the most dangerous thing in the world.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, Oil on Canvas

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6 Responses to Mary Cassatt

  1. CMStewart says:

    Yes, they do focus on women! That is perplexing. Perhaps there is an evolutionary explanation.

  2. foxpudding says:

    Perhaps my spam filter is male.

    • CMStewart says:

      And another thing- somebody needs to explain to me why a ratified ERA is a bad idea, using coherent language reflecting logical, rational, fully formed thoughts which are directly related to gender equality. I’m even willing to listen patiently, and with an open mind.

  3. Elizabeth says:


  4. I am an artist too. Always have been. My first fashion design, drawn at the age of 5, is featured on my web site. But in my world, a mere 80 years ago, a girl did not become an artist. I was never told, not in words, but I understood from my earliest years, my role in life was to grow up, marry an educated man, get knocked up as often as possible (7 times, birthed five) and learn how to play bridge. So I did exactly what was expected of me. Then…at the age of 42, something happened…I began to change my role. And after that, I changed it numerous times. And much to my surprise, I became a writer. In 1985 I discovered women artists from the Renaissance, Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1652) Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Clara Peeters, (1594-1657)And Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) to name just a few. I wanted to write about them…but I was so angry, as a young artist I had never known that these women existed. As far as I knew…art was strictly a mans world. I wanted to write a book about them, but my anger kept getting in the way. I didn’t want to write a rant…so I stopped working on it. Now, some 27 years later I’m pretty much over it, and I have gone back to work. Thanks you Don, for this wonderful review of a brilliant artist. Now I feel better! I love your reviews…they are a delight.

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