Mary Cassatt (1844-1926): Exploring Art

Mary Cassatt was an unusual Impressionist. Not only was she a woman and an American, she also remained a studio painter, preferring to paint her subjects indoors, unlike most of the original Impressionists who carried their paints and canvases outside for plein air painting (en plein air means “in the open air”).

Cassatt was born into an upper-middle-class family in Pennsylvania. When she was seven, her family moved toParisfor a few years where she fell in love with art and determined to become a painter. At twenty-two, she returned toParisalone and began to make a name for herself in the art world. Ultimately, her parents and younger sister joined her inFrance, and she remained there for most of her life.

Cassatt won recognition as a professional artist in 1872 when the French Salon accepted one of her paintings, but it wasn’t until she met the Impressionists that her mature style emerged. She embraced the bright colors and informal poses of that revolutionary group and especially admired the work of Degas.

As a woman, Cassatt painted the world she knew best—women in their everyday domestic roles. Though she never married nor had children, Cassatt painted mothers caring for their children with tenderness and admiration. Her work delights in the beauty of mundane tasks: bathing a baby, knitting a pair of stockings, sharing a caress with a child. These eternal glimpses into the daily life of women and mothers impress upon us the joy and contentment in everyday tasks.

Check your library for these resources:

Mary Cassatt by Mike Venezia (Children’s Press, 1989)

Mary Cassatt: Impressionist Painter by Lois V. Harris (Pelican Publishing Company, 2007)

Picture Study: Young Mother Sewing

Who are the people in this picture? What are they doing?

Describe the colors Mary Cassatt used in this painting. What mood do they convey?

Notice how the daughter mirrors the position of the mother’s face and her hands. Why do you think the artist painted the picture this way?

This is an indoor scene. Is there anything in the picture that links the inside world with the outside?

By Emily Cottrill

Emily Cottrill has a B. A. in Studio Art from Wheaton College. A private art teacher for homeschooled students of all ages, she believes art history is a vital part of art education. She has a passion for diminishing the number of “I-can-draw-stick-figures-only” adults in the world.

—Originally published in Homeschooling Today magazine, “Consider the Ant,”  July/August 2009

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