Cecelia Beaux: “The Greatest Woman Painter”

In The Footsteps of Cecelia Beaux

I once spent a whole day in Paris walking in the footsteps of Cecelia Beaux. I’d read her autobiography and was eager to feel the same Paris that she did. I mapped it all out and took my camera. When I tried to tell friends and family back home about my little adventure, it nearly broke my heart when they said “Who?”

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s when I pulled out the famous quote from William Merritt Chase, and said pretty indignantly, well, another famous artist once said “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” — William Merritt Chase, 1899. And they raised their eyebrows, like, “really?”

So that’s when I resolved to dig deeper into Cecelia Beaux’s story. Who was she and why has her legacy faded so much in the last 100 years? And what about that interesting praise from William Merritt Chase?

Wholly aside from the gender politics within that quote, Chase is making an unavoidable comparison between Cecelia Beaux (1855-1942) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Cassatt would have been the main competition for the honor, such as it is. And yet today, Mary Cassatt is a household name and Cecelia Beaux is not.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Beaux and Cassatt’s Beginnings

Cassatt and Beaux had much in common. They each had French blood: Beaux’s father was from Avignon, Cassatt’s ancestors on her father’s side were French Huguenots from Normandy. Both Cassatt and Beaux spoke fluent French, which might just seem like an interesting coincidence, but then, they both found success in Paris art circles, which is no small thing for an American.  Beaux later attributed her talent to “the priceless heritage” she received from her French father, who did indeed have some natural talent for art, often drawing charming little animal sketches for his daughters.

Both Beaux and Cassatt were raised in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s. Their well-off families could afford to support their art studies, although the Levitt-Beaux family was less so due to some reversals and hardships, including business failures and the death of Cecelia’s mother 12 days after her birth. However, both families still considered themselves “proper” and tended to follow the social proprieties of the Victorian era, which limited the opportunities for their daughters.

Cassatt (1844-1926) was a decade older than Beaux (1855-1942), but they both started studying art at a very young age, first privately and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, Cassatt from 1860-1862, Beaux from 1876-1878.

Together, their stories reflect the achingly slow pace of change in 19th century art studies for women. Cassatt studied in PAFA’s Antique Class (copying from plaster casts) from 1860-62 during the “fig leaf era,” a time when women were deemed too sensitive to observe sculpture in mixed company unless the male sculptures were discreetly adorned with fig leaves. There were no life drawing classes for women. In 1860, Cassatt’s class of women did receive permission to pose for each other, but it would only be for one hour at a time in a private modeling room and without an instructor. And one would assume with their clothes on. Given these restrictions, Cassatt left the United States to travel and study art in Europe with her family in 1865, when she was only 21 years old.

In case you missed it, I’ve previously written about Mary Cassat in Paris and in her country homes outside of Paris, Chateau de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Theribus and Bachivillers, France.

Beaux’s Art Studies in Philadelphia

Unlike Cassatt, Beaux studied art in Philadelphia for over 10 years, beginning at age 16. Her studies would be very start-and-stop as she hopped from one teacher to another, and given the limitations of her early instruction, her talents would be slow to develop. Which just goes to show that Linda Nochlin (author of “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”) was right, it really does matter how you study art and with whom.

From the beginning, Beaux’s studies were subject to the approval of her uncle, William Foster Biddle, not her father. Beaux’s father had returned to France in 1861 after his American textile business failed, and did not return for 12 years. He left his daughters in the hands of their grandmother, their aunts and their Uncle Will, who would act as the patriarch of the family.

By the time Beaux was 16 years old, it was clear she did not excel in her academic studies at the Lyman School for Girls. “My reports were not bad, but they were not very good,” admitted Beaux. In 1871 Uncle Will decided she could quit school and pursue art studies instead. He sought not professional instruction but a ladylike approach suitable for a young woman who would soon be thinking of marriage.

Professional art classes at the PAFA were out of the question. The progressive women students of PAFA had filed a petition to enroll in life drawing classes. While the petition was granted in 1868, they were only allowed to use female models. Still, Uncle Will would not have approved. He was spared that decision because in 1870, PAFA closed its doors in order to build a new building with much more room for art classes. His niece would need to study elsewhere.

The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

Standing since 1876, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Will was able to make what he thought to be a thoroughly safe choice for Beaux’s first teacher: his own relative Catherine Ann Drinker (“Aunt Kate”), who had already studied at PAFA and opened her own studio by the age of 30. As Beaux herself said, “I think that, secretly, my uncle shrank from launching me away from the close circle of home, and thought that if I must go out, I could not be in a safer place.” Beaux’s studies with Drinker, which started in 1871 and lasted only a year, consisted of making conté crayon copies of lithograph copies of Greek sculptures. (So in other words, Beaux would be 3 times removed from actual contact with a real live model. Can’t get much more proper — or inadequate — than that.)

It turned out that Beaux was frustrated with her drawings at Catherine Drinker’s studio, calling them “correct and ugly, a hateful travesty to the eyes.” But Drinker offered a different kind of education: what the life of a professional female artist could be like. It turns out it was more sophisticated and social than Uncle Will had expected. Drinker invited Beaux to stay at the studio after lessons were over and to join her artistic circle of friends. Beaux was inspired but Uncle Will was not pleased.

When Drinker became engaged to one of the men in her circle (a man 8 years younger, go Aunt Kate!), she recommended that Beaux sign up for art school. Knowing Uncle Will would expect a segregated class for women, Drinker recommended a class offered by the Dutch artist Francis Adolf Van der Wielen.

Beaux entered Van der Wielen’s class in 1872, but was required to prove herself proficient in enlargements and perspective in order to be promoted to the Antique Class, where she would draw copies of plaster casts.

Drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an "Antique Class"

Undated photo of a drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an “Antique Class.”

In her autobiography, Beaux offers a delightful rant that explains exactly why copying from plaster casts was such an “impoverished” way to study art.

I soon found myself before a large piece of white paper and one of the plaster busts. It was not the head of the Medici Venus, which I had never seen, of course, but something like it, and even less interesting, and it was placed in a broad hard light and had no silhouette, or mystery of lighting, no motivity. It was an object which took me nowhere and brought me nothing, as I now see, because it represented a series of contradictions. I suspect that it was a Roman bust, and without original impulse. Of course, it had the highly sophisticated syntheticism of the Greek ideal for its origin, but refined away to negative import and diluted artificialdom, it had only in the plaster pretended substance, which the marble would have made existent and absolute, even in abstraction.

The surface of plaster of Paris gives no clue to its substance, though the forms it is the mould of were decisive, though abstract. So firm, in fact, that thinking back to the original that must have been, the idea of youthful body, tender cheek, lip and throat, seem to have been qualities to be rejected.

Beaux wrote these impassioned words nearly 60 years later, after she had spent most of her life painting with live models. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a better explanation why women needed to be allowed to draw and paint from life, and not the cheap plaster casts available in their “Antique Classes.”

Beaux’s fondest memory of her year with Van der Wielen was when a fellow student brought in a gift from her fiancé, a young doctor, complete set of bones of the skull. The students copied them all in pencil, enjoying the play of organic curves, modeling and lighting for the first time. Years later, Beaux credits this knowledge of the human skull for giving her a “predilection for portraiture, and the manifestations of human individuality. I always saw the structure under the surface, and its capacities and proportions.”

Classes at Van der Wielen’s would end in 1872, when a female student “succumbed to the manly charms of our director,” and with “her ample fortune floated them away, far from the ennui of class exercises in drawing.” (Isn’t Beaux hilarious?)

Van der Wielen’s departure would lead to a teaching opportunity for Beaux. Catherine Drinker stepped into Van der Wielen’s position and in 1872, Beaux stepped into Drinker’s post as a part-time art teacher at Miss Sanford’s School for Girls. Beaux taught for 3 years. In 1874, Uncle Will introduced Beaux to a printer and she was offered her first professional illustration assignments, including a commission to illustrate fossils for a book on paleontology. In 1876, she would have attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and was most likely inspired to enroll in additional art instruction of her own.

Although Beaux denies it in her autobiography (interesting, that in 1930, after a long successful life in international art circles, she would still feel the need to defend her propriety), in 1876, the new PAFA building was completed and 21 year-old Celia Beaux enrolled in the antique, costume and portrait classes.

Why the reversal for Uncle Will? For one, his fortunes had turned around and by 1876, there was plenty of money for more art classes for Beaux. Perhaps Uncle Will saw her as a more serious artist with professional potential, or perhaps Beaux was one of those insistent young women who finally wear down their father figure. Beaux even signed up for the life drawing class with the famous instructor Thomas Eakins, but only attended once. (I’ll bet she didn’t mention that to Uncle Will.) By this time, the women of PAFA were allowed to draw and paint nude models, although male models were required to wear a loincloth.

 

Woman's Life Class

Alice Barber Stephens, The Women’s Life Class (illustration for William C. Brownell, “The Art Schools of Philadelphia, Scribner’s Monthly 18 Sept. 1879)

 

Beaux claimed that she avoided Eakins’ class because of Uncle Will’s “chivalrous and Quaker soul,” but in truth she might have quickly realized in just one session that Eakins’ life class was ripe for rumor and scandal. Although Eakins was greatly admired by many of his female students and has since been recognized as one of the most progressive teachers of the era with his emphasis on anatomy and the live human form, he would be forced to resign his PAFA teaching post in 1886 amidst allegations that he encouraged the female students to pose in the nude, that he exposed himself to a female student, and that he lifted a loincloth from a male model in the women’s life class.

Beaux only pursued her studies at PAFA for a couple of years. It is possible that her uncle, who had been generously supporting her studies, decided that two years was enough. It’s also possible that life just got in the way, as it is known to do. These years were a time of courtship for Beaux and her older sister, which brought its social and domestic distractions.

When Beaux’s older sister Etta married Henry Sturgis Drinker in 1879 and Beaux had no acceptable offer of her own, Beaux turned back to art classes. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Beaux found no man who was more interesting than her art.

This time she would study china painting, a popular decorative craft that would have given Beaux something from which to make a living. After lessons at the National Art Training School of Philadelphia, she started to make money painting portraits of children on porcelain plates. She gave it a try for awhile but kind of hated it: “I remember it with gloom,” she admitted in her autobiography. From the image below, you can tell that Beaux’s ability to get a likeness is developing, but that her subject appears utterly joyless. (Then again, maybe he was a joyless little snot and she nailed it.)

Working Title/Artist: Plaque: Cecilia BeauxDepartment: Am. Decorative ArtsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, Digital File DT5403.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 3_27_12

Cecelia Beaux, Child on Porcelain Plaque (1880), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (not on display)

 

 

 

 

 

Beaux’s Turning Point: Life Classes

The turning point for Beaux came in 1881, when at the age of 26 a friend from her early days at the Lyman School invited her to join a life drawing and painting class supervised by William Sartain, a French-educated artist and successful New York professional. It would be the first time Beaux would ever take classes with a live model. She clicked with Sartain’s gentle style. Beaux began painting portraits with confidence and inspiration. Her work took a huge step forward.

 

When Beaux wrote about her first life classes 50 years later, you can just feel the powerful impact the experience had on her:

… the unbroken morning hours, the companionship, and, of course above all, the model, static, silent, separated, so that the lighting and values could be seen and compared in their beautiful sequence and order, all this was the farther side of a very sharp corner I had turned, into a new world which was to be continuously mine.

Sartain was one of those rare artists who was also a magnificent teacher. Beaux describes his ability to communicate his vision:

What I most remember was the revelation [Sartain’s] vision gave me of the model. What he saw was there, but I had not observed it. His voice warmed with the perception of tones of color in the modeling of cheek and jaw in the subject, and he always insisted upon the proportions of the head, in view of its power content, the summing up, as it were, of the measure of the individual.

This ideal, the most difficult to attain in portraiture, is hidden in the large illusive forms; the stronger the head, the less obvious are these, and calling for perception and understanding in their farthest capacity.

When our critic rose from my place and passed on, he left me full of strength to spend on the search, and joy in the beauty revealed; what I had felt before in the works of the great unknown and remote now could pass, by my own heart and hands, into the beginning of conquest, the bending of the material to my desire.

What moxy! Beaux’s world had just exploded with confidence and inspiration. She would soon begin her own conquest of the art world, “bending material to her desire.”

 

Cecelia Beaux’s Portrait Career is Launched

It was about this time that Beaux rented her own art studio on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia (at first shared with cousin Emma Leavitt) and began painting portraits in earnest. The PAFA Archives contain some interesting photographs of the cousins in their studio in the 1880s.

In 1883, Beaux found herself in the “large barren studio” with tall ceilings and full light, dreaming of a large picture. She began to sketch a composition in the style of Whistler’s famous Arrangement in Gray and Black #1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), which she would have seen at the Centennial Exhibition of 1881. Beaux’s sister agreed to pose for the oversized canvas along with her wiggly 3 year-old son. She claims that “the presiding daemon spoke French in whispering the name of the proposed work”: Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance. Even if you don’t speak French you can still somehow understand “the last days of infancy” and the bittersweet intimacy that conveys.

beaux les derniers jours

Celia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance (1883-5), oil on canvas, 46 x 54, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

 

It took Beaux two years to finish the double portrait. She had never before done anything but heads. Here she had to figure out not only the full body, but the interaction of the two, as well as a background, table and flowers. And then the rug, which is way more difficult than it looks. (I know, I’ve tried it. My needlepoint rug looked great, but completely overpowered the rest of the painting.) It was ambitious to say the least. She received regular criticism from her former teacher William Sartain, who stopped by her studio whenever he could get away from New York, but other than that, she kind of figured it out on her own. She was 30 years old when she entered it into the Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy and won the Mary Smith Prize for the best painting by a female artist.

Now she was on a roll. She would soon complete Ethel Page as Undine (1885) — again, on her own in her own studio without dedicated instruction — and would win the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy for the second year in a row. Beaux would work on over 40 portraits in the next few years, seeking to distinguish herself as a serious professional and not a dilettante, much like Mary Cassatt did in France.

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

The Paris Salon

Beaux’s biggest triumph as an up-and-coming artist would come in 1887 when her friend and fellow artist Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown offered to take Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance to Paris and to submit it to the Paris Salon on Beaux’s behalf. Bush-Brown was a friend from PAFA who had studied in Paris at Académie Julian with Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger, as well as Carolus-Duran and Jean J. Henner. Bush-Brown carried the painting on the top of a cab to the studio of Jean Paul Laurens for his advice. Laurens urged Bush-Brown to send it to the Salon. Despite Beaux’s lack of connections in the Paris art world, it was accepted. As Beaux said in her autobiography:

It had no allies; I was no one’s pupil, or protégée; it was the work of an unheard-of American. It was accepted, and well hung on a centre wall. No flattering press notices were sent me, and I have no recorded news of it. After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts.

Beaux describes how she sat and stared at her painting when it was returned to her in Philadelphia, resolving to go to Paris herself to continue her studies.

I sat endlessly before it, longing for some revelation of the scenes through which it had passed; the drive under the sky of Paris, the studio of the great French artist, where his eye had actually rested on it, and observed it,. The handling by employés; their French voices and speech; the propos of those who decided its placing; the Gallery, the French crowd, which later I was to know so well; . . .

But there was no voice, no imprint. The prodigal would never reveal the fiercely longed-for mysteries. Perhaps it was  better so, and it is probable that before the canvas, dumb as a granite door, was formed the purpose to go myself as soon as possible.”

 

 

Next Post: Celia Beaux in France

 

 

Sources and for Further Reading:

Cecilia Beaux, Background with Figures, Autobiography of Cecilia Beaux, Houghton & Mifflin Co. (1930)

Alice A. Carter, Cecilia Beaux, A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age, Rizzoli (2005) – although note the book cover which appears below curiously says “Victorian Age.” My copy, and I am looking at it right now, clearly says “Gilded Age.”

Sylvia Yount, et. al. Celia Beaux, American Figure Painter, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2007), accompanying the 2007-8 exhibit by the same name at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta Georgia, The Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

 

 

Mary Cassatt’s Chicago Mural

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman Mural (1893)

Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman Mural, as photographed in the Women’s Building of the Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

In 1892, Mary Cassatt and Mary MacMonnies, both of whom were American artists living in France, were commissioned to paint giant murals for the Chicago World’s Fair. Bertha Palmer, a Chicago philanthropist and wife of the rich and powerful Potter Palmer, had been named the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the fair, and was determined to fill the walls of the Women’s Building with original art by talented women.

Cassatt was not Bertha Palmer’s first choice. Palmer preferred the more traditional style of Elizabeth Gardner, an American painter who lived in Paris with the famous French academic painter William Adolphe Bourguereau. But Gardner turned down the commission, claiming that it would be too physically demanding for her at the age of 55.

Sara Hallowell, an American art dealer who had been appointed Assistant Chief of the Fine Arts Department of the fair, urged Palmer to consider the more modern Cassatt. Although Bertha Palmer was familiar with her work, Cassatt was not well-known in America at the time, despite the fact that she was nearly 50 years old and had been painting for over 30 years.

Cassatt had mixed feelings about the commission, as shared in a letter to her friend Louisiana Havemeyer:

I am going to do a decoration for the Chicago Exhibition. When the committee offered it to me to do, at first I was horrified, but gradually I began to think it would be great fun to do something I had never done before and as the bare idea of such a thing put Degas into a rage and he did not spare every criticism he could think of, I got my spirit up and said I would not give up the idea for anything.

 

Degas considered “decorations” such as mural work beneath a true artist, but his opposition “got her spirit up” and convinced her to accept the commission. The theme was Modern Woman, which Cassatt would explore with the smoldering feminist point of view of a successful single female at a turning point in history.

Cassatt’s mural was a 58×12 foor triptych that featured women picking fruit, dancing, playing instruments and interestingly, young women chasing a flying nude female figure. Cassatt fully intended all of the underlying feminist symbolism (women picking the forbidden fruit for themselves and passing it on; young women chasing fame, being chased by a gaggle of geese) but the subtext and the modernism of Cassatt’s technique shocked Chicago audiences.

Cassatt received horrible reviews for the work, which disappeared after the fair and has never been found. Some speculate it was destroyed while in storage at the end of the fair, while others hope that it might still be uncovered in the back room of some small midwestern college.

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I already knew the story of the mural when I set out to see Chateau Beaufresne, Mary Cassatt’s country home in Le Mesnil-Theribus, feeling a special connection between my hometown of Chicago and France. I also knew that Cassatt didn’t buy Chateau Beaufresne until 1894, so I knew she didn’t paint the mural there. In fact, Cassatt painted the mural at another country home that she rented in nearby Bachivillers, France. I was determined to find it.

Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt's summer home in 1891 and 1892, not far from Le Mesnil-Theribus

Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt’s summer home in 1891 and 1892, not far from Le Mesnil-Theribus

 

Chateau Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt's rental home north of Paris the summers of 1891 and 1892, the place where she painted the Modern Woman Mural for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.

Chateau Bachivillers, Mary Cassatt’s rental home north of Paris during the summers of 1891 and 1892. This is where Cassatt painted the Modern Woman Mural for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

I never would have found the right house were it not for the help of Marianne Caron of the French organization Les Amis de Mary Cassatt. The home is privately owned, and there are no plaques or commemorative signs to identify it. Caron and I drove over from the nearby village of Le Mesnil-Theribus on a narrow little country road surrounded by farmland. Caron confirmed that this would have been the very same road on which Cassatt and her father would have traveled in their horse-drawn carriage. The smell of moist soil rose from the newly tilled fields. It felt like we were a million miles from Paris and decades – if not centuries – back in time.

Caron told me that the current owners of Chateau Bachivillers are aware of the house’s history and have actually hosted a Mary Cassatt lecture in the home, which Caron participated in.

And then I asked her about the trench. I had read that Cassatt built a special outdoor glass-roofed studio at Chateau Bachivillers in order to complete the mural. She had workmen dig a giant 60×6 foot trench into the soil below. This way, Cassatt – who was almost 50 years old – wouldn’t have to climb on ladders to reach the upper portions of the mural. Instead, the workmen would lower the mural into the trench.

I wondered, would remnants of the trench remain all these years?

While I wasn’t able to enter the property and examine the yard for myself, Caron told me the story about the time she did exactly that. When she was there for the Mary Cassatt lecture, she walked out to the side yard (indicating to the left of the home) with another local expert, and they spotted some disruption in the soil. However, something about its location made them skeptical, it being more likely that the studio would have been located to the rear of the chateau where there was no evidence of a trench.

As I stood outside Chateau Bachivillers, I tried to imagine Cassatt’s trusted friends and family arriving to witness Cassatt’s progress on the mural, including Chicago art dealer Sara Hallowell, Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and possibly Cassatt’s friend and neighbor in L’Oise, Camille Pissaro. Cassatt longed for Degas’ advice, but never invited him out to see the mural for fear of his savage opinions.

In the end, Cassatt was paid $3,000 for the mural, which was the same amount that men were paid for their similar murals for the fair. It was enough to compensate Cassatt for her many expenses, including the cost of the models, the workmen, the studio and the trench. Cassatt was able to shake off the criticism of the unsophisticated American audience and continued to work quite happily on new paintings with some of the same models. Just as the Chicago World’s Fair closed, Cassatt’s first major Paris exhibition opened at Durand-Ruel’s gallery, featuring 100 of her paintings.

A talented and independent woman still hitting her stride at the age of 50. In 1894. I’m humbled and inspired. . . .

 

For further reading: Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt by Sally Webster and Mary Cassatt: A Life by Nancy Matthews

Eve's Daughter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cassatt A Life, Mathews

Mary Cassatt’s Gravesite

I recently wrote about my trip out to Chateau de Beaufresne, Mary Cassatt’s country home north of Paris in Le Mesnil-Theribus. There, I made the acquaintance of Marianne Caron, local tour guide and Cassatt expert, who took me on a short walk from the chateau to the Cassatt family gravesite.

On the way, we talked about our shared interest in Cassatt and the local stories about Cassatt’s involvement in the community. Cassatt employed many locals as domestic staff, gardeners and models, and thus had very deep connections to the community.

Many of the local women worked in a button factory, and according to local legend, Cassatt intervened on their behalf in a wage dispute and strike against their employer. Cassatt cared so deeply about the local children (many of whom were here little models) that she built them a small schoolhouse and arranged for them to go to public school. On our way to the cemetery, Marianne Caron pointed out the building that once housed the school that Cassatt built.

Rumor has it that Cassatt gave some of her artwork to local friends and supporters as gifts. In fact, she once offered her gardener (whose descendants are known to Marianne Caron) to take his pick of a selection of canvases that were propped up against the wall. He declined and lived to tell his children that he wished he hadn’t.

Once we reached the gravesite, I was struck by the fact that both of Cassatt’s parents were buried here, along with her sister Lydia and her younger brother Robert (“Robbie”). Cassatt truly did consider France her home, and wanted her loved ones nearby. Robbie died of bone cancer in Germany in 1855, and was originally buried in Germany. (I believe Caron told me that Cassatt moved his remains to France after World War I.) Lydia died in 1882 at the age of 45. Robert Cassatt died in 1891, before Mary purchased Chateau de Beaufresne. Mary and her mother lived there together for just one year before her mother passed away in 1895. Ever since 1926, they have all rested peacefully together in Le Mesnil-Theribus.

The cemetery gates of Le Mesnil-theribus

The cemetery gates of Cemetiére Saint Louis in Le Mesnil-Theribus

 

The sign honoring Mary Cassatt in French and English, donated by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt

The sign honoring Mary Cassatt’s legacy in both French and English, donated by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt

 

Locals donated this plaque to remember Mary Cassatt and her contribution to the community

Locals donated this plaque to remember Mary Cassatt and her contribution to the community. Le Moulin Vert is the current name of the old Chateau Beaufresne, named after the green water mill on the property.

 

Mary stevenson Cassatt (1845-1926)

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) – but doesn’t the grave say 1843?

 

Family Cassatt's grave marker

Family Cassatt’s grave marker

A building in Le Mesnil-Theribus that Cassatt is said to have built as a schoolhouse for the local children

A building in Le Mesnil-Theribus that Cassatt is said to have built as a schoolhouse for the local children. It is located just down the street from the cemetery.

 

The lovely chemin from the chateau to the cemetery.

The lovely tree-covered chemin from the chateau to the cemetery.

 

 

For Further Reading: I Have Always Loved You by Robin Olivera, in which the story begins and ends at Chateau de Beaufresne, as Cassatt is remembering her relationship with Degas.

My Review here: Cassatt and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

Mary Cassatt’s Chateau de Beaufresne

Mary Cassatt was an American painter who lived in  most of her life in France. If you’re curious about Mary Cassatt’s years in Paris during the 1870s and 80s, and would like to see photos of the different Paris apartments in which she and her family lived, click here for a prior post.

Mary Cassatt in 1907

Mary Cassatt in 1907

But it turns out there is much more to Cassatt’s story than Paris. Cassatt led a long productive life, and spent much of her time in summer homes in the country. In fact, from 1894 until her death in 1926 Cassatt lived in a summer home in Le Mesnil-Theribus, France, a country village north of Paris. Her home was called Chateau de Beaufresne (“Beautiful Ash”) named for the large ash trees that grow in the area. I was lucky enough to visit this beautiful old chateau, which is currently owned by Le Moulin Vert, a group that provides horticultural education for troubled teens.

 

 

At the time of my visit, efforts were underway by a group called Les Amis de Mary Cassatt to purchase the chateau and turn it into a museum. I think it’s a spectacular idea. The home and grounds could be as popular as Monet’s in Giverny and the Van Gogh sites in Auvers-sur-Oise. Le Mesnil-Theribus is located about an hour north of Paris on the way to Beauvais, several miles west of A16.

I made arrangements to meet with Marianne Caron, a member of Les Amis de Mary Cassatt, who shared with me many local legends and stories of fellow villagers whose ancestors had known Cassatt. She was a wealth of information.

SAMSUNG CSC

Chateau de Beaufresne, Le Mesnil-Theribus, France. Currently home to Le Moulin Vert, a horticultural program for troubled teens.

In 1893, Mary Cassatt learned that Chateau Beaufresne was for sale. She had been renting another beautiful country home in nearby Bachivillers during the summers of 1891 and 1892, when the owner told her he wouldn’t be renting it out anymore. Cassatt was determined to stay in the area, and made the impulsive decision to buy the Chateau Beaufresne, despite the fact that it needed many repairs.

Chateau Beaufresne (source: http://cassatt.eu)

Chateau Beaufresne (source: http://cassatt.eu)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of Chateau Beaufresne, then.

The back of Chateau Beaufresne, then.

Cassatt spent most of the summer of 1894 renovating the old chateau. In a letter to  Paul Durand-Ruel, she expressed her frustration and told him she intended to sell the house, that it was just too much trouble:

We are finally settled here and, even before we came, I had had enough of my role as landlord; I have given nearly three months of my time and I know that I still have a part of the summer to devote to giving orders, and I ask myself when will I find the time to do a bit of painting! Madame Aude [Durand-Ruel’s daughter and Cassatt’s neighbor in the Chaumont-en-Vexin area] knows the landowners of Trie, would she be so kind as to tell them I am putting Mesnil-Beaufresne up for sale?

The house is very good, very sound. I had water &c put in, Indeed I cannot say that everything is not well, but I do not want to give any more orders to workmen, who don’t follow them anyway.

. . .

What I want is the freedom to work. My mother is no longer of the age or the strength to concern herself with the outdoors, and I don’t have the interest.

My brothers will surely laugh at me, but I won’t say anything until I have sold it and won back my freedom. Certainly it is the best thing in the world.

I am completely fed up with the trouble I had to get a bit of work done (Mary Cassatt to Paul Durand-Ruel, Summer 1894).

 

What emerges so strongly from that letter is Cassatt’s burning desire to get back to work on her painting. Doesn’t she sound like a 21st century woman, frustrated with all of the distractions and obstacles that stand in the way of our freedom? In any event, Cassatt changed her mind about selling the house. Soon she is working away at her painting and pastels. In another letter to Durand-Ruel, Cassatt says:

I am now settled here for the summer and working hard. I hope to submit to you some pastels before long; if I were a landscape painter, I would [have] no trouble in seeking beautiful subjects – The country looks lovely not withstanding the drought – . . . (Mary Cassatt to Paul Durand-Ruel, May 19, 1896).

 

Indeed, the property is very lovely, and would be the ideal setting for a landscape painter.

The back of Chateau Beaufresne,  (2014)

The back of Chateau Beaufresne (2014)

The view of Chateau Beaufresne from the back of the property, across a lovely little lilly pond.

The view of Chateau Beaufresne from the back of the property, across a lovely little pond full of cat tails and lily pads.

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The grounds of the chateau including a brook and acres of weeping willow and pond vegetation.

The grounds of the chateau include a brook and acres of weeping willows and pond vegetation. It was hard to get the lighting right for a photograph, but it would have been a picturesque place to set up an easel for some plein air painting.

 

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At the back of the property there still stands the small building that Cassatt used as her printing studio. She used the mill to provide electricity, and strung electrical lines to the very back of the property. She would spend as much as 8 hours a day in her little printing shed.

At the back of the property there still stands the small mill that Cassatt used as her printing studio. She would spend as much as 8 hours a day working here.

 

The back entrance to the chateau

The back entrance to the chateau

 

The sunny room at the back of the chateau that was known as the gallery. It is supposedly where Cassatt used to paint. Imagine that.

The sunny room at the back of the chateau that was known as the gallery. It is supposedly where Cassatt used to paint. Imagine that.

 

A framed photo on display in the chateau shows a car parked outside the back door in front of the gallery.

A framed photo on display in the chateau shows a car and a donkey cart parked outside the back door in front of the gallery. Note the window treatments that Cassatt used to control the amount of light entering her gallery.

 

A view of an interior room of the chateau with curved walls and a fireplace.

A view of an interior room of the chateau with curved walls and a fireplace. Various old photographs of Mary Cassatt are displayed on the walls. The room is currently used for meetings and conferences.

 

The main stairwell of the chateau

The main stairwell of the chateau

 

An exterior spiral stairway around the back of one of the chateau's two turrets.

An exterior spiral stairway around the back of one of the chateau’s two turrets.

 

A commemorative plaque that has been placed along a walk leading from the parking lot up to the front entrance of the chateau.

A commemorative plaque that has been placed along a walk leading from the parking lot up to the front entrance of the chateau.

 

This sign appears at the entrance of the chateau, placed there by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt.

This sign appears at the entrance of the chateau, placed there by Les Amis de Mary Cassatt.

 

Chateau de Beaufresne is now located on rue Mary Cassatt.

Chateau de Beaufresne is now located on rue Mary Cassatt.

After Cassatt’s death in 1926, Cassatt’s niece Ellen Mary Cassatt Hare (daughter of Cassatt’s brother Joseph) and her family continued to use the home for summer visits from Pennsylvania, and they continued to employ a small staff to tend to the home in their absence. At sometime toward the end of World War II, General DeGaulle spent one night at the chateau on his way from London to Paris (Encyclopedia Picardie). The chateau fell into disrepair and in 1961 was donated to Le Moulin Vert, a social service agency of L’Oise region.

Ever since my visit to the chateau, I have enjoyed checking out Cassatt’s paintings to detect a hint of the chateau or its grounds in her work. Check out the beautiful window scene in the background of this one, Children Playing with a Dog (1907). Perhaps?

Cassatt, Children Playing with a Dog (1907)

Cassatt, Children Playing with a Dog (1907)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For further reading: Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, ed. Nancy Mowll Mathews

cassatt letters

 

Cassat and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

I Always Loved You is Robin Oliveira’s wonderfully atmospheric story about Mary Cassatt’s early years in Paris, beginning in 1877 when Edgar Degas invited her to exhibit with the revolutionary group of French artists known as the Impressionists. Oliveira has done a fabulous job of capturing the place and times of these 19th century artists, including Degas, Morisot, Manet, Renoir Caillebotte and Pissaro.

Oliveira offers us lively and colorful scenes in Paris, from the studios of Montmartre to the salon scene along the Champs d’Elysée. I have photos of some of these scenes in an earlier post called Mary Cassatt’s Greater Journey, including her homes on avenues Trudaine and Marignan.

As the title suggests, this book imagines that there was more to the story of the friendship  between Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas and Cassatt were known to be very close friends and colleagues. It is absolutely true that Degas had an enormous influence on Cassatt’s art and life. But was there ever more? Oliveira imagines their story as a love story.

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886)

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886), pastel on paper

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878),  gouche on paper 23x17in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878), gouche on paper 23×17″ 
Metropolitan Museum of Art,

But wait. Wasn’t Degas the disagreeable painter of nude prostitutes, working class absinthe drinkers and the petit rats from the demi-monde of the Opéra? He had a bad reputation, if rumors are to be believed. Some have made him out to be celibate, impotent, a misogynist, or even a sex offender.

And wasn’t Cassatt a cloistered woman of high social standing, best known for her tender portraits of mothers and children?

What could these two possibly have in common? Despite their differences, there was something that bound the two together, and I believe it was their fanatic devotion to their art. They both worked brutally hard at their technique and admired that in each other. They loved capturing the color of flesh and preferred to paint indoors, unlike many of the other Impressionists. They were the most experimental of the Impressionists, spending a great deal of time working and re-working their prints.

Was there ever more than this professional bond? We will never know. Cassatt destroyed all of her letters with Degas before she died. Oliveira draws her own inferences from that big mysterious gap, but I’m not so sure. Can’t Cassatt’s extraordinary work speak for itself? Isn’t her true story – as far as we know it – enough? Isn’t it enough that Cassatt and Degas had an intense, complicated, or even tortured friendship? Why do we have to impose on her our desire for romance?

This story is different than the one about the love affair between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton that Jennie Fields wrote about in Age of Desire (2012). That imagined story was based on Edith Wharton own letters. Her late-in-life extramarital affair might have been a surprise to Wharton’s many fans and admirers, but it was undeniably true. And with it came the revelation that Edith Wharton had written her own erotica. Quelle surprise! 

The Cassatt-Degas question is similar to the one between Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, whose story is also told in Oliveira’s book. There were rumors of a romance there too, and inferences to be drawn. Both Morisot and Manet left behind some remarkable paintings that give us a potential peek at their inner secrets. I’ve written about this in the past – you might want to check out this previous post, Berthe Morisot’s Interior.

So are there any clues in Degas and Cassatt’s work?

Degas made numerous drawings, prints, pastels and etchings of Cassatt in the years between 1879 and 1885. But there is not one nude, no sweet smiles or sultry stares. Mary Cassatt would never have subjected herself to that kind of exposure. All we have are inscrutable poses like this:

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt (1880-1884).  Mary Stevenson Cassatt / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt  by Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, (1880-1884), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Degas made a series of studies, drawings and prints of Mary and her sister Lydia at the Louvre, including this study of Mary’s silhouette:

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study (1880)

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study in pastel (1880), Philadephia Museum of Art

The second pose is flattering, and has an unmistakeable sense of Degas’ interested gaze, but it is a long way from suggesting that they were lovers.

And yet it nags us, if there was nothing improper, why would Cassatt destroy their letters? It is entirely within this mysterious gap that Oliveria’s book takes place.

The letter burning story does make for lovely opening and closing scenes in I Always Loved You. Cassatt is elderly and living with no one but her long-term housekeeper at her country home, the Chateau de Beaufresne, and she is reading the letters she and Degas wrote to each other.

But she had kept these letters, as he had kept hers, though what they had been thinking, she couldn’t imagine. Such recklessness. Private conversations should always remain private. Why should anyone know what they themselves had barely known?

At the very end of the book, Oliveria returns to this same scene and shows Cassatt sitting in the dim light next to the fire, nearly blind from cataracts, as she decides to destroy the letters.

Was it a crime to burn memory? She didn’t know. Memory is all we have, Degas had once said. Memory is what life is, in the end.

She would be ash herself, soon, like all the others. She thrust the letters one by one into the fire. . . .

The pages burned on and on. And in those flames the years evaporated, the things unsaid and foregone, the misunderstandings and misconceptions and subverted hopes, the things that would now never be said.

Did they or didn’t they? We’ll never know for sure. Oliveira’s book offers one possible interpretation. What’s yours?

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source: http://www.mary-cassatt.net

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source: http://www.mary-cassatt.net

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Château_de_Beaufresne.JPG

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Château_de_Beaufresne.JPG

If you’re a fan of Mary Cassatt and would like to see more photos of Chateau de Beaufresne and the family gravesite nearby in Mesnil-Théribus, go to http://www.mary-cassatt.net. I hope to get there myself on my next trip to Paris.

In the Conservatory with Madame Bartholomé

Albert Bartholomé, Dans la serre (1881), a portrait of his first wife Prospérie

Albert Bartholomé, Dans la serre (1881), a portrait of his first wife Prospérie. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, on loan to the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago.

This painting, called Dans la Serre (In the Conservatory) is getting a lot of well-deserved attention in the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity Exhibit currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago (June-September 22, 2013).

In spite of the snippy things the New York Times had to say about it (“wide miss” and “cloying”), in my experience, this painting draws some of the biggest crowds at the exhibit, from Paris to Chicago. Behind it lies a tragic but fascinating story.

Albert Bartholomé (1848-1928) painted this portrait of his first wife Prospérie de Fleury (the daughter of the Marquis de Fleury) in 1881. She posed in a fashionable  dress in the conservatory of their home, which was located at 8 rue Bayard in Paris.

 

The dress of Prospérie Bartholomé, Musée d'Orsay

The dress of Prospérie Bartholomé, Musée d’Orsay.

 

 

 

The painting is large and captivating, but when exhibited right next to the very dress that Propérie (“Périe”) wore while she posed, it’s a show stopper. The detailing of the dress is as remarkable as its petite size. Seriously, I think I could have worn that dress in sixth grade.

 

 

 

The setting of Dans Le Serre reflects the couple’s wealth and standing. The garden in the background reminds me of the beautiful gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo near Parc Monceau in Paris, another home of great wealth and history (a home I like to call the “Downton Abbey of Paris.”)

Backyard gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris.

Backyard gardens of the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris.

The Bartholomé home wasn’t in the fashionable Parc Monceau neighborhood, but it was located on an equally beautiful block in the “Golden Triangle” of the 8th arrondissement between the Seine and the Place de François 1er. This is what their block looked like back then:

Place François 1er before 1909, source: wikipedia.

Place François 1er before 1909, source: wikipedia.

Fontaine de la Place François 1er, Paris. Source: wikipedia

Fontaine de la Place François 1er, Paris. Source: wikipedia

 

 

 

And here is the Place de François de 1er now, including the beautiful fountain you might recognize from the opening montage in Midnight in ParisThe Google Map Street View will give you a good glimpse of the structure that stands at 8 rue Bayard today.

 

 

 

 

 

According to the Musée d’Orsay, the Bartholomés enjoyed hosting salons for their artistic circle of friends (including Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Jacques-Emile Blanche) with free-ranging intellectual discussions about music, painting and books.

Two years after he painted Périe’s portrait in Dans le Serre, Bartholomé drew a pastel portrait showing her reading on the couch in front of a bookshelf. Clearly, their home was full of books. Périe is dressed in another fashionable dress, this one with black ruffles and resembling some of the other fashions in the Impressionism and Fashion exhibit, particularly Manet’s Parisienne. She seems to be wearing the same gold bracelet that she did in Dans le Serre.

Albert Bartholomé, The Artist’s Wife, Reading, pastel and charcoal (1883), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.

Two years later, Albert and Périe became the subject of a joint portrait by Edgar Degas, a painting started in 1885 called The Conversation. Once again, Périe’s outfit (in which her bustle resembles the tail plume of a turkey) seems to be the focus of the composition.

Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1885-1895), Yale University Art Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Edgar Degas, The Conversation (1885-1895), Yale University Art Gallery, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Image: Yale Art Gallery e-catalogue.

Unfortunately, Prospérie was in poor health and would die in 1887, just two years after they posed for the Degas painting. Bartholomé was so overwhelmed with grief that he preserved the dress that Périe wore in the Dans le Serre. I’m not sure how it became the property of the Charles and André Bailly Gallery in Paris, but it was subsequently gifted to the Musée d’Orsay in 1991.

As if the Bartholomé story wasn’t sad enough, Périe’s death caused Albert to give up painting altogether. On the advice of his friend Edgar Degas, he took up sculpting instead. Maybe the highly physical act of molding large-scale plaster and bronze was more cathartic than painting with a brush.

His first sculpture was for his wife’s tomb in front of a church in Bouillant, France, near Crépy en Valois. Not only did Bartholomé express his own raw grief, he also captured his young wife’s likeness. She has the same delicately pointed nose that she does in the painting Dans la Serre.

Bartholomé sculpure on his first wife's tomb in Bouillant, France.

Bartholomé’s sculpture for his first wife’s tomb in Bouillant, France. Image: Parismyope.blogspot.com.

From that point on, Bartholomé’s entire oeuvre consisted of grief sculptures. He is probably best known for his Monument aux Morts at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (1888-1889), which is heart wrenchingly sad.

Albert Bartholomé, Monuement aux Mortsu cimetière du Père Lachaise (1889-1899). Image: parismyope.blogspot. com.

Albert Bartholomé, Monuement aux Morts du cimetière du Père Lachaise (1889-1899). Image: parismyope.blogspot. com.

Despite Bartholomé’s deep and long-lasting grief, he did manage to remarry in 1901. I wish I knew the whole story, but all I can find is that his second wife Florence Letessier (18xx-1959) had been a model before their marriage, so presumably that’s how they met. Bartholomé would have been in his 50s at the time of his second marriage but Florence was much younger.

Bartholomé sculpted Florence in 1909, but it doesn’t look as though her youth and serenity captured his imagination as much as the memory of his first wife. Florence’s face looks full and healthy but her expression and posture are utterly bland.

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909). Image:http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde

Albert Bartholomé, Bust, Madame de Bartholomé, Née Florence Letessier, Second Spouse of the Artist (1909), Musée d’Orsay. Image: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde

Sometime after their marriage, Bartholomé and Florence moved to 1 rue Raffet in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, where he would have a sculpting studio right next door to their home. The home and studio are still standing, as you can see from Google Maps Street View. Today, the studio at 1 bis rue Raffet rents out separately from the apartment building next door.

On a side note, Bartholomé’s art studio on rue Raffet became part of a huge art controversy in the 1950s. Apparently, Degas allowed his good friend Bartholomé to make plaster casts of some of his sculptures for Bartholomé’s private collection, including a plaster cast of Little Dancer, Age 14. Florence inherited the plaster casts in upon Albert’s death in 1928, but they didn’t go on the art market until she was placed in an asylum in the 1950’s, creating a big controversy.

In any event, you shouldn’t miss the chance to go see Bartholomé’s portrait of his wife Périe in Dans le Serre at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity Exhibit. Just look into Périe’s eyes, and you can almost imagine their sad story. It’s anything but a wide miss.

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Cassatt’s Greater Journey

In The Greater Journey (Simon & Schuster), McCullough turns his storytelling gifts to the many Americans who came to Paris between 1830 and 1900. As McCullough says, “Not all pioneers went west.”

Among these pioneers were young men and women who would come to study art in Paris, including George P. Healy, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Augustus St. Gaudens.

First Mary Cassatt. Because I love her story.

Cassatt was from a proper and prosperous Pennsylvania family who could afford to travel through Europe. After studying art in Philadelphia, she told her father that she wanted to study art abroad. He tried to discourage her (“I’d almost rather see you dead than become an artist!”) but he gave in like dads are known to do.

Cassatt would travel and study through Europe in the 1860s and early 70s, from Italy to Spain to France, studying under such French masters as Jean-Léon Gérome, Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture. She would succeed in having her first painting accepted to the Paris Salon in 1868. According to McCullough:

For Mary her time in France had determined she would be a professional, not merely “a woman who paints,” as was the expression. Commenting in a letter on just such an acquaintance, she was scathing: “She is only an amateur and you must know we professionals despise amateurs. . . .”

Cassatt would decide to live in Paris in 1874, and thereafter make France her home for the rest of her life. Mary and her older sister Lydia moved into a small apartment on rue de Laval (now Victor Massé). It was a street known for artist’s homes and studios. Cassatt would become close friends with Degas (who lived and worked on rue Victor Massé for many years), discovering his pastels in a gallery window on nearby boulevard Haussman.

In 1878, Cassatt’s parents decided to come live in Paris, and together they moved to a larger apartment at 13 avenue Trudaine, in the respectable streets at the foot of Montmartre. There, Cassatt could be close enough to walk to her and her friends’ art studios, but yet  far enough away to be proper. They had a beautiful view of Sacré Couer from their fifth floor apartment.

13 avenue Trudaine, home of Mary Cassatt and family from 1878-1884. (Funny anecdote: the day I tracked down this address, I was excited to notice a film crew on the street in front of the former Cassatt home, and I thought, “How exciting! They’re filming a movie about Cassatt!” No, they were filming next door. Nothing to do with Cassatt. I obviously live in a bubble of art history and assume the rest of the world does too.)

The view of Sacré Couer from the park across the street from Cassatt’s avenue Trudaine apartment.

At about this same time, Degas invited Cassatt to join the Impressionists, the first and only American in the group, and only the second woman (besides Berthe Morisot). Cassatt would join in their Fourth Impressionist Exhibit in 1879. It was a good fit for Cassatt, who despite her thoroughly conventional background, had an independent and blunt personality. She was not well suited for the politics and brown-nosing required to fit in the Paris art establishment:

Finally I could work with absolute independence without concern for the eventual opinion of the jury. . . . I detested conventional art and I began to live.

Once her parents moved to Paris, Cassatt turned her focus toward domestic family portraits of her mother, sister, nieces and nephews. Her portraits would not be highly flattering society portraits, but rather, beautiful studies in composition and mood. Her women would be introspective and intellectual, utterly without pretense, often concentrating on a task, a newspaper or a book. In Cassatt’s 1878 portrait of her mother, Cassatt builds an intriguingly complex composition through the use of a mirror on the left half of the canvas that emphasizes the act of reading.

Mary Cassatt, Reading Le Figaro (Portrait of Cassatt’s Mother) 1878. Displayed in Fourth Impressionist Exhibit in 1879.

Mary Cassat, The Cup of Tea (Portrait of her sister Lydia) 1880

Cassatt may suffer from a modern feminist bias against highly domestic scenes with women and children, as if Cassatt agreed that this was the only proper sphere for women. In fact, Cassatt was a highly ambitious artist who never married and who was responsible for earning her own living. Cassatt’s tough-love-count-every-penny father demanded that she pay for her own studios and art supplies from the sale of her work. She did.

Cassatt was not highly social, and unlike the male Impressionists, she could not properly hang out at the cafés and nightclubs of Montmartre. However, she did enjoy going to the opera about four times a week in the company of close friends and family. Here she would be able to sketch out a fascinating series of paintings.

While the painting of Cassatt’s sister Lydia in the evening dress might be more traditionally pretty, it is her pose in a black dress at a matinée that is more interesting, and seems to have the more to say. In fact, if you have a couple extra minutes, you should really listen to this “Smart Art History” video about Cassat, the Paris Opera and the painting below.

Mary Cassatt, In The Loge (Mary’s sister Lydia) 1880

By the late 1880s, Cassatt was finding her own success and beginning to sell many of her paintings. She and her family would find a larger apartment in an even nicer part of Paris at 10 avenue Marignan near the Champs-Élysées by 1887. Cassatt would keep this apartment for the rest of her life, although she and her family would rent numerous summer homes in the suburbs of Paris.

The plaque at 10 rue de Marignon in the 8th arrondissment of Paris: “American Impressionist Painter – Friend and Colleague of Edgar Degas.” (Commentary: Why do the plaques commemorating a woman have to mention their relation to a man? I noticed the same thing on Edith Wharton’s plaque on rue Varenne in Paris, which mentioned that Wharton was a friend of Henry James.)

10 rue Marignan, Paris home of Mary Cassatt from 1887-1926

Mary Cassatt lived the rest of her life in Paris and its suburbs, dying in 1926 at her country chateau in Beaufresne, one of the last of her generation who had come to Paris in the 1860s. She was a significant part of America’s “Greater Journey.” And because she was a woman, her story is even more remarkable. Like Ginger Rogers, she had to do it “backwards and in heels.”

The Greater Journey by David McCullough: Highly recommended. Also recommended, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman.