Art Institute of Chicago

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Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman


The Art Institute of Chicago is proud to present Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, the first retrospective in 30 years of the work of one of the greatest artists this country has produced. On view in the Art Institute's Regenstein Hall, the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Building, October 13, 1998, through January 10, 1999, the exhibition brings together approximately 100 of the Cassatt's most beautiful and compelling paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints, from public and private collections worldwide. Mary Cassatt has been organized by the Art Institute in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (to be shown there February 14-May 9, 1999), and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where it will be seen June 6 -September 6, 1999.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) is an artist of surprises--mostly small, but often subtle and profound. Known to this day as a "painter of mothers and children," a sobriquet given in her lifetime, she approached this, her favorite subject, with the surprisingly unsentimental but sympathetic clarity she used to address all her subjects. Born into a well-to-do, fairly conventional American family, Cassatt became a genteel rebel, traveling and living alone, partaking of the bohemian life in Paris while developing a magnificent painter's eye and businesswoman's head. She was the only American (and one of only three women) to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris--becoming close friends with some of them--but moved very much in her own direction after that group splintered, coming to draw on such disparate inspirations as Symbolism and Japanese prints. Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman and its accompanying catalogue show the many sides of this remarkable woman: an artist--and an independent artist at that--at a time when no "respectable" woman would consider that possibility; a strong-willed, tough-cored businesswoman and influential tastemaker; and an expatriate who nonetheless always remained identified as an American.

Bom in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia, Mary Cassatt came of age in a household that greatly valued education and saw travel as a means to encourage learning: before Cassatt was 10 years old, she had already seen many of the capitals of Europe, including London, Paris, and Berlin. Despite the concerns of her parents, Cassatt chose career over marriage, and left the United States in 1865 to travel and study in Europe. The fact that she had chosen to seek a vocation at all would have been startling to any well-to-do parents of a daughter in the early 1860s. Her decision to become a professional artist must have seemed beyond the pale, given that serious painting was largely the domain of men in the 19th century.

Often traveling alone, Cassatt studied in Paris, Rome, Parma and Seville, before returning and settling permanently in the French capital in 1874. The paintings she produced in this period--of women flirting, tossing flowers, sharing refreshment with a bullfighter--reveal a young artist eager to combine the skill of the Old Masters with the adventuresome subject matter of the moderns. It was while walking past a Paris gallery window in 1874 that Cassatt first saw a bold pastel of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas--she would later describe this first exposure to the revolution of Impressionism: "I saw art as I wanted to see it. I began to live." That same year, Degas saw Cassatt's entry in the French Academy Salon; he was quite taken with the work and invited her to join the Impressionists. The timing was perfect, since Cassatt was more than ready to cast off the academic conventions of the Salon. She accepted eagerly, and subsequently became close friends with Degas, as well as Monet, Pissarro, and Morisot. Cassatt was to become the only American whose work would appear in the company of these and many others in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886.

Cassatt continued to paint modern women after she joined the now-famous Impressionists. Just as she made her first appearance with Degas, Pissarro, and Monet in 1879, the paintings she exhibited at that show depicted young women making their own debuts at the glittering spectacle of the opera. By the 1880s, her imagery had become more domestic and interior, but no less modern. Cassatt's women engage in contemporary rituals of womanhood-whether sewing, reading or drinking tea--yet they exude a sense of dignity and purpose that challenges conventional notions of decorative femininity.

Cassatt is perhaps best-known for her paintings of mothers and children, works which also reflect a surprisingly modern sensibility. Traditional assumptions concerning childhood, child-rearing, and the place of children in society were facing challenges during the last part of the 19th century and women too were reconsidering and redefining their place in modern culture. Cassatt was sensitive to a more progressive attitude toward women and children and displayed it in her art as well as in her private comments. She recognized the moral strength that women and children derived from their essential and elemental bond, a unity Cassatt would never tire of representing.

After 1886, Cassatt discovered an interesting and viable alternative to the Impressionist shows in the burgeoning peintres-graveurs (painters-printmakers) movement. Beginning in 1889, this group began to organize exhibitions at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris, also the primary dealer of the Impressionists. Although already an innovative and original printmaker beginning as early as 1879, Cassatt's involvement with the peintres-graveurs--coupled with an 1890 visit to a large and highly influential Japanese print exhibition in Paris--spurred the artist to focus more intently on making her own color prints later in 1890. Her suite of 10 delicately colored drypoints and aquatints represents a landmark in the history of printmaking. Loosely based on aspects of Japanese prints she had seen in Paris, the album was so technically sophisticated and deceptively complex that Cassatt had the printer who assisted her place his signature alongside her own.

It may well have been the success of these color prints that persuaded Bertha Honore Palmer-the Chicago socialite, collector, and chairperson of the Board of Lady Managers of the 1893 Columbian Exposition--to give Cassatt the commission for the 1893 Fair's Women's Building mural titled Modern Woman. Palmer acquired a set of Cassatt's prints in early 1892, and only months later, Cassatt was laboring in relative isolation to bring the 58-foot work to completion. Although Modern Woman was unfortunately lost after the close of the fair (in all likelihood destroyed), it served as the basis for many of Cassatt's most impressive and important works of the 1890s. A number of paintings in this exhibition derive from her execution of the mural.

Tickets for the exhibition are available by calling 1-800-929-5800.

From top to Bottom: Driving, 1881, oil on canvas, 89.3 x 150.8 cm, Wilstach Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art; At the Theater, 1879/1880, lithograph on paper, 29.1 x 22.2 cm,. S. P. Avery Collection, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Arts, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tildon Foundation; Woman in a Loge, 1878/1879, oil on canvas, 80.2 x 58.2 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, bequest of Charlotte Dorrance Wright; Young Mother, 1900, oil on canvas, 92.3 x 73.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, The H. O. Havemeyer Collection; The Letter, 1890-1891, drypoint and aquatint on cream laid paper, 34.5 x 21.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. M. A. Ryerson Collection; The Child's Bath, 1893, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 66 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Robert A. Waller Fund.


The Art Institute of Chicago and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., are co-publishing a beautifully illustrated catalog in conjunction with the exhibition Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman.

The catalog Mary Cassatt: Modem Woman traces the artist's development from her early education in the United States and Europe to her contributions to the Impressionist movement, and finally, to her later interest in Symbolism. Drawing on recent scholarship and new research, the book's contributors examine the sources that inspired her; her relationships with the major avant-garde artists of her day; her efforts to promote her art at home and abroad; and her critical role as an art advisor to private collectors and nascent public museums in the United States.

More than 100 rich color plates illustrate Cassatt's dominant themes: the daily activities and realms of modern women. Supplementary works by Cassatt, by artists of the past whom she admired, and by her contemporaries are reproduced in color and duotone, along with many previously unpublished photographs. An examination of Cassatt's pastel technique is also included, in addition to an illustrated biographical chronology, and the first complete list of exhibitions in which the artist participated during her lifetime.

This handsome volume will enlighten and delight all who love late 19th- and early 20th-century art, and all those interested in the life and career of this very modern woman. Judith A. Barter, Field-McCormick Curator of American Arts at The Art Institute of Chicago, organized this exhibition and contributed one of the catalog's six essays. Accompanying essays are by George T. M. Shackelford, Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of European Paintings, and Erica E. Hirshler, Associate Curator of American Paintings, both at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Kevin Sharp, Curator of American Art at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida; Andrew J. Walker, Research Assistant in the Department of American Arts, and Harriet K. Stratis, Paper Conservator in the Department of Prints and Drawings, both at the Art Institute.

Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman is 376 pages long, with 300 illustrations (124 in color and 176 in duotone). As of December, 1998, the date of this article, the hardcover version sells for $65.00 and the softcover for $29.95. The catalog is available at all four locations of the Museum Shop.

The exhibition has been organized by The Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The Sara Lee Foundation is the primary sponsor of Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman. Support for the exhibition and accompanying catalog is also provided by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

from Magazine Antiques Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt, Nov, 2004 by Pamela A. Ivinski; Mary Cassatt's color prints - renowned 19th-century woman artist, Oct, 1998 by Elliot Bostwick Davis
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) by H. Barbara Weinberg, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
an Arts4All Ltd. video. Go to ArtsPass > Video on Demand > Arts Pass Library and select "Cassatt, Mary (1844-1926) (Visual Arts) (10:28)"
from YouTube Mary Cassatt (Child of Mine) cjmcqueen - 4 min - Jun 12, 2006. An overview of Mary Cassatt's work. Music is Child of Mine by Carole King
from an online course by Dr. Liana Cheney of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell titled "Art History and Film," videos Mary Cassatt (from the Great Women Artists series by Kultur Video, 45 minutes), and Mary Cassatt, Impressionist from Philadelphia (from The Originals, Women in Art series by WNET/New York, 28 minutes)
from YouTube Mary Cassatt ghaile123 - 5 min - Feb 3, 2007 Mary Cassatt's favorite subjects became children and women with children in ordinary scenes. Her paintings express a deep tenderness and her own love for children. But she never had children of her own.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Cassatt: Portrait of an artist, 30 minutes, collection of Joslyn Art Museum
Children of Mary Cassatt is a 10 minute video featuring Mary Cassatt, who was one of America's greatest impressionists. She exhibited with them as an equal. But her paintings of children are peerless and unique. She alone reinvigorated the image of Madonna and Child, updating it in a modern idiom.
Great Women Artists: Mary Cassat is a 45-minute video released in 2001 by Kultur Video. "Children and naturalism are the hallmarks of Mary Cassatt's work during the 1880's and 1890's. She absorbed from her Impressionist colleagues Caillebotte, Degas, and Renoir, as well as her study of Japanese prints, the modern idea that the background of a painting might be as significant as the foreground. Her paintings depict a world of her own creation, one that adults can fully understand only by recapturing their childhood persona." From the Back Cover: "Georgia O'Keeffe was an American abstract painter, famous for the purity and lucidity of her still-life compositions. In 1916 the American photographer and art gallery director Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married in 1924) became interested in her abstract drawings and exhibited them at his gallery in New York City and in other important institutions. O'Keeffe moved to New Mexico in 1949, and is best known for her large paintings of desert flowers and scenery, in which single blossoms or objects such as a cow's skull are presented in close-up views. ASIN: B00005ASQZ
Mary Cassatt: A Brush with Independence is a 57 minute 2002 documentary video from Home Vision Entertainment produced and directed by Emmy®-winner Jackson Frost and narrated by actress Anne Archer. This television documentary covers the life and work of the bold artist who was the only American invited to show her work in the celebrated Impressionist exhibitions of Paris. Going beyond Cassatt's formal importance and stylistic influence, the program also looks at her work for women's suffrage and other important issues of her time. Based on the popular exhibition organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. VHS/ DVD. ISBN:  0-7800-2487-7
Mary Cassatt: American Impressionist. Actress Amy Brenneman stars as Mary Cassatt in this 60 minute 1999 family telefilm from HBO's The Artists' Series. Cassatt's life in Paris changes dramatically when her brother's children come for a visit. A fine entry point for kids to begin an exploration of the arts.
Mary Cassatt, Impressionist from Philadelphia is a 1975 WNET program from The Originals, Women in Art series which focuses on the life and work of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Profiles American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Recounts the influence of her upper-class Philadelphia family and her years in Paris, where she studied and painted alongside Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro. Dramatizes an episode in the life of artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) during the time she was in Paris when her brother and his children arrive. She finds herself inspired by the children, using them as models. 28-minute video. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center
Portrait of an Artist: Mary Cassatt, Impressionist From Philadelphia. Mary Cassatt is now recognized as one of the great American artists of the 19th century. The best examples of her work are shown in this video along with stills and on-site footage in order to gain a better understanding of this remarkable woman and her art. 30 minutes. (quote courtesy Plains Art Msueum)

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 7/23/10

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