Mary Cassatt was doubly unusual within the school of Impressionism: as a woman and an American. An exhibition in Paris puts the spotlight on this lesser-known member of Degas’ school, and free class visits are available in English.
Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1844, into a family that had made a fortune in finance, and had French roots. She was determined to become a professional artist, an ambition opposed by her father, who did not think a woman of her class should have a profession of any sort. Nevertheless, she enrolled at art school in Philadelphia at just 15, but was frustrated by the limitations put on female students, who were not allowed to use live models.
In 1866 she persuaded her father to allow her to move to Paris, chaperoned by her mother and family friends. There she again had to overcome obstacles because of her gender. Women were not allowed to enrol in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but she was able to take private lessons with the teachers. She was forbidden by her family from visiting the cafes and salons where artists congregated, but almost every day she went to the Louvre to learn by copying Old Masters.
For ten years from 1868, she regularly exhibited at the Paris Salon, or submitted works that were rejected. Like many other artists, she became disillusioned with the academic style and gratefully accepted Edgar Degas’ invitation to exhibit with the Impressionists from 1879. She was the only American woman to be included in their exhibitions.
Turning the social restrictions into an advantage, Cassatt specialised in domestic scenes, paintings and engravings for women, and many variations on the theme of mother and child. (Somewhat ironically given that she had early on decided that marriage and motherhood were incompatible with a career.)
An extensive exhibition of Cassatt’s work is on show at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris until 23 July. The Mona Bismark American cultural center is proposing free guided visits for classes in English. There are still spots available on 2 May, 13-15 June and 18 June.
Like all narrative art, Cassatt’s paintings and engravings are perfect for getting pupils talking. The domestic themes mean even beginner classes can be encouraged to practise everyday vocabulary describing people, clothes, colours and rooms.
The scenes also lend themselves to creative writing tasks, imagining the story of a scene that is depicted.
More advanced pupils could be asked to react to the criticism levelled at Cassatt’s popular work in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition: that her portraits were too accurate to be flattering to the subjects. That can open the door to work around self-image and selfies, bringing this nineteenth century artist right up to the modern day.
Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris
Till 23 July
Courtesy Adelson Galleries, Inc. and Marc Rosen Fine Art Ltd.