Oh, I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work. . . . it made him [Degas] furious that he could not find a chink in my armor . . . there would be months when we could not see each other, and then something I painted would bring us together and again he would . . . say something nice about me, or come to see me himself.—Mary Cassatt1(p109)
In April 1915, the “Suffrage Loan Exhibition of Old Masters and Works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt” opened at the Knoedler Galleries in New York. Cassatt (1844-1926) believed women were innately humanitarian and that their views should be represented through voting, particularly at a time of war. The irony amused her, too, that Degas (1834-1917), who sometimes made sexist comments about feminists, would be linked to a feminist cause.2(p303)However, the New York exhibit did not include paintings she had given to her own family members. Cassatt came from a prominent Philadelphia family; her brother was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and one of the wealthiest men in the country. Although he was a supporter of the arts, Cassatt's 2 Philadelphia sisters-in-law opposed women's suffrage and refused to lend paintings that she had given them to the exhibit. In retaliation, after the event ended, Cassatt sold or donated major paintings of hers that she had planned to leave to them as her heirs.2(p309)
Cassatt and Degas received high praise from reviewers. On April 4, 1915, a New York Timescritic wrote that their works showed a “glorious vitality,”3particularly noting that Cassatt “has created an ideal of health and soundness in modern art that expresses our deepest and most fruitful modern feeling.”3
Degas was often critical and sarcastic, and Cassatt exhibited an uncompromising sense of dignity and pride (epigraph). He described her as a “distinguished person whose friendship I honour”; recognized her as “someone who feels as I do”1(p109); praised her by saying “no woman has a right to draw like that”; and told her art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, that she had “infinite talent.”1(p109)She wrote, “The first sight of Degas[’s] pictures was the turning point of my artistic life.”1(p109)For her, he was magnificent.
In 1877, Degas asked Cassatt to join him and other “intransigents” (impressionists)1(p110)who held independent exhibits; she began to exhibit with them beginning in 1879. Cassatt differed from the other impressionists in her preference to paint inside and in her greater focus on people rather than landscapes. Like Monet,4who also had cataracts, she was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, especially those of Kitagawa Utamaro (c 1753-1806), whose prints influenced her decision to depict women engaged in their daily routines. Her emphasis on mothers and children reflected contemporary French concerns. She embraced a tendency at that time to romanticize the purity of childhood.
Cassatt's many paintings, pastels, and prints showing children being bathed, dressed, read to, held, or nursed summarized 19th-century ideas about child rearing. Following cholera epidemics in the mid 1880s, mothers were encouraged to bathe their own children as a preventive measure. Avoiding sentimentality, her goal was to portray interpersonal warmth and intimacy. The Child's Bath(cover) brings together her interest in contemporary views of mother/child relationships and her newfound enthusiasm for ukiyo-e. In it, the woman's gestures—one firm hand securing the child in her lap, the other caressing its small foot—communicate tender concern. Mother and child seem to look together at their paired reflection in the basin of water.
In 1892, Cassatt painted a large tympanum mural, Modern Woman, for the Women's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893). The central panel shows modern women “plucking the fruits of knowledge or science”; one side panel shows women seeking fame and the other pursuing the arts.2
Bilateral cataracts5were first diagnosed in Cassatt in 1912, possibly as a complication of diabetes,5with possible diabetic retinopathy. Ophthalmologist James Ravin writes “Her late paintings had become strident, harsh in color. The smooth texture of her earlier works was gone, replaced by a coarse type of painting.”5(p182)Yet despite her worsening vision, her Young Mother, Daughter, and Baby(Figure) is a warm portrayal of a mother with her children. Degas also had progressive visual loss, probably macular degeneration,6that resulted in reduced visual acuity but not distortions in color perception as occur with cataracts; he continued to paint. Cassatt was sufficiently concerned about his welfare that she visited his nieces and was instrumental in a niece who was a nurse coming to Paris to care for him for the rest of his life. Because of her vision problems, Cassatt did not paint for the last 12 years of her life; her diabetes was probably managed by diet, but she was hospitalized in a diabetic coma in the last year of her long life.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), American. Young Mother, Daughter, and Baby(Jeune mére, fillette et bébé), 1913. Pastel on paper, 43¼ × 33¼ in. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester: Marion Stratton Gould Fund (http://magart.rochester.edu/Obj3059$6436). Photo credit: James Via.
Widely recognized in France, she received a ceremonial funeral as “befitted her rank as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.”2(p320)When Degas died, Cassatt remarked that he was her “oldest friend here and the last great artist of the 19th century. I see no one to replace him.”1(p139)One might ask the same of Mary Cassatt: who shall replace her?
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