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Cosmopolitan America

Mary Cassatt, A woman and a girl driving, 1881

Focus work

Mary Cassatt
A woman and a girl driving 1881
Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the WP Wilstach Fund 1921

Ambitious American artists pursued their studies in Europe. Mary Cassatt arrived in Paris in 1866 and in 1877 was invited by Edgar Degas to participate in the impressionists’ annual exhibition. She exhibited in three subsequent shows as well as with the Durand–Ruel gallery, the principal agent of the impressionists.

A French critic praised Cassatt’s attention to ‘austere but ennobling’ maternity rather than feminine delicacy and grace. Noting a practical and energetic American spirit in Cassatt’s art, he remarked that she ‘knows and understands the woman of the world – because she is one herself… she has self-respect, a refined education, concern for dignity, and a pride which commands our esteem’. These qualities are evident in Cassatt’s sister, Lydia, as she drives the family carriage through the Bois de Boulogne.

Issues for discussion

Describe the elements in this painting that suggest the influence of European impressionism. What are artists trying to capture when using this style? Discuss how impressionism is different to traditional painting techniques. Why did American artists feel the need to travel to Europe for inspiration?

Artist biography

Mary Cassatt is the only American painter officially associated with the French impressionists. Born into an affluent banking family, Cassatt was exposed to European painting at a young age. The family travelled widely and it is thought Cassatt saw the work of artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, Pissarro and Degas at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855. At the age of 15, Cassatt began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, despite her family’s objections. Disappointed with the opportunities provided, she moved to Paris in 1866 to further her studies. As women were not accepted by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt undertook private tuition from artists including Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture. One of her works was selected for the Salon de Paris in 1868. In 1877 Cassatt was invited by Edgar Degas to exhibit with the newly formed ‘impressionists’ in The fourth impressionist exhibition in 1879 and subsequently in 1880, 1881 and 1886. She was one of only a few women to be included. Degas would become her colleague and mentor, encouraging her to explore printmaking. From 1886, however, Cassatt no longer identified with French impressionism, which had lost its radical edge. Hostile towards the developments of post-impressionism, fauvism and cubism, she increasingly looked to photography, Japonisme and the oriental aesthetic for inspiration. Cassatt’s work received more critical acclaim in Paris than in her native United States, where impressionism was not explored as a valid style of painting until the 1890s. Her mural Modern woman decorated the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. Diagnosed with cataracts in the early 1900s, Cassatt’s failing eyesight forced her to stop painting. She was awarded the French Légion d’honneur in recognition of her contribution to the arts in 1904.

More information

Philadelphia Museum of Art website

American painting had always been shaped by a dialogue with Europe. From the 18th century, travel to Europe for training or inspiration was essential for any ambitious artist. By the late 19th century, American artists approached Europe with great confidence and achieved remarkable success. James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent were figures of celebrity in London, Mary Cassatt and Henry Ossawa Tanner respected members of the Parisian art world.

The final decades of the 19th century were dubbed the Gilded Age – a period of political upheaval and social inequity but also one in which major cities became centres of wealth, modernity and cultural patronage. The notions of the ‘leisure class’ and ‘conspicuous consumption’, introduced by economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899, encapsulated this spirit of elegance and display. Using the European styles they admired – old masters and impressionism – artists explored the urbane gentility of the great American.