Mother's Day is a bit of a loaded holiday, and certainly an emotional one. From the joy (and exhaustion) of being a new mother on her first Mother's Day, as women we are always conscious of the other mothers we celebrate as well - our mothers and stepmothers, the women who have served as our surrogate mothers along life's path. For those who have experienced the loss of a mother or child, or the inability to have a child, the holiday can be difficult and saddening; a time to grieve anew each year. As I was ruminating on this earlier this week, my thoughts lit upon the artist Mary Cassatt. Although she never married or had a child of her own, she produced remarkably tender and honest depictions of mothers and children throughout her long career which are more remarkable than ever today.
One of only three recognized women to be a part of the Impressionist movement (along with Berthe Morisot - another of my favorites - and Marie Bracquemond), Cassatt is remembered as a champion of the heart and the home long before casual moments were considered important enough to document. I think her work is especially fresh today, when we are constantly bombarded with staged photographic images of mothers and children in the media. She was also ahead of her time in her determination to succeed as an artist on her own terms - her life was fascinating!
American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a painter and printmaker born in Allegheny City, Philadelphia. Her mother, Katherine Cassatt, was both educated and well read, and it is said that she had great influence on her daughter Mary's burgeoning talents. Mary's friend is quoted as having remarked "Anyone who had the privilege of knowing Mary Cassatt's mother would know at once that it was from her and her alone that [Mary] inherited her ability."
An Unusual Education
Mary began formal schooling at the age of 6, and at the young age of 15 was accepted at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At the time, a career as a professional artist was not viewed as proper for a young woman of Mary's social class, but having artistic talent was valued as a social skill for an educated lady. This is no doubt what her family had in mind, although Mary was already determined to succeed on her own terms as an artist. She became frustrated at the Academy because women were not allowed to draw from life as the male students were (she was allowed only to draw from plaster casts) and soon withdrew as she felt the instruction was inadequate.
In 1866 she convinced her father to let her move to Paris to continue her education, chaperoned by her mother and family friends. France was no more hospitable to female artists that the US, and women were not allowed to attend the École des Beaux-Arts. Mary got around this by hiring the painting masters from the school to teach her privately, and acquiring a permit to spend her days copying paintings in the Louvre. Over the next few years she traveled back to the US, returned to Paris, and although constantly producing work received little attention or accolades. Women artists were not takes seriously, but Cassatt stayed true to her course. In 1877, after many seasons of struggle and disappointment, Edgar Degas invited her to show her work with the group of outlaw artists knows as the Impressionists - and she found her voice and her audience. Cassatt continued to live in France for most of her adult life.
What I find so moving about her work is the intimate connections she captures between mothers and their children. The moments seem so private and fleeting. Her loose impressionistic style suits the subjects, motherhood itself is a balance between chaotic mess and moments of pure love. In many of the portraits the face most clearly depicted is that of the child, often our main focus as mothers.
It is amazing to realize also that she worked from life. These subjects are not posing for hours, we all know you can't ask a small child to hold still at all. Mary sketched as quickly as possibly and commenced the detail work afterwards. I haven't been able to confirm this, but I wonder if her choice of subjects wasn't based largely on the people who were available to model for her. As a woman, she was expected to be in the world of the home and the family. Her models were friends and acquaintances, and the everyday tasks in which they are engaged in her artwork (bathing, dressing, sewing, playing in the garden) were daily activities. I can just imagine Mary showing up at her friends' house, pulling out her paints or pastels, and saying, "just pretend I'm not here".
Some of her images make me gasp with feeling - they so strongly bring back memories of when my own little one was that small.
I also appreciate the way she was true to her subjects and did not glamorize or flatter them. I can't really imagine anything much more beautiful anyway than an honestly tender moment.
So much of Cassatt's work is accessible to us at museums across the US and around the world, if you have a moment to visit with the special little people in your life you will not be disappointed. And who knows, you may have a young Mary Cassatt in your household who will be inspired!
I hope you have enjoyed these images as much as I have enjoyed assembling them here. Thank you so much for reading!
Wishing you a beautiful Mother's Day this Sunday!
“Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.” —Robert Browning