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.

American Girls Art Club: History

American Girls Art Club Courtyard in 2011

The American Girls Art Club, which once stood at 4 rue de Chevreuse on the Left Bank of Paris, is now known as Reid Hall, and is owned by Columbia University’s Global Centers Program.

The property was built by the Duc de Chevreuse and way back in the 18th century it housed the Dagoty porcelain factory. In 1834, the site was turned into a Protestant school for boys called the Keller Institute.

In the early 1890’s, Elisabeth Mills Reid, a wealthy American philanthropist and wife of the American ambassador, got the idea to start a residential club for American women artists in Paris. She knew about an arts club for men on the rue Paul Séjourné, and when she learned that the Keller Institute property was available, she got together with her friends, Reverend and Mrs. William Newell. The Newells were evangelicals who had been hosting Sunday evening social hours for American girls at their own home on the rue de Rennes. With the help of the Newells and the larger expatriate community in Paris, Elisabeth Reid established The American Girls Art Club in Paris, a residential club for young American women artists that provided matronly supervision and spiritual guidance.

The club thrived because it was affordable and very social. There was room for approximately 40-50 women in either single or double rooms at approximately $30 per month. There was a “dainty blue” receiving room for playing the piano and serving tea, as well as a reading room full of English-language books and magazines. The residents often strolled and sketched in the gardens of the courtyard. Each Sunday the Newells arranged an informal religious service followed by a social hour. The club hosted an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner every year.

The club was within walking distance of the Luxembourg Gardens, L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and many bookshops and restaurants along Boulevard Raspail. Although the female residents could not study at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts until 1897, many of them did study at prominent private ateliers in Paris, including the studios of Bouguereau, Whistler and Carolus-Duran.

The residents planned and hosted their own art exhibits at the club, inviting their fellow students and art teachers. In 1895, they formed the American Woman’s Art Association of Paris to host the annual show. Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low and other prominent women artists who were permanent residents of Paris helped preside over the club, serving as jurors and officers. Prominent Paris artists and art teachers attended the exhibitions, providing the members with valuable critiques and praise. Each year, the Art Club purchased one piece of art from the exhibition for display in the Club.

Anne Goldthwaite’s 1908 oil painting of the courtyard of the American Girls Art Club in Paris is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Take a peek at it here.

During World War I, the property became a hospital, and was held by the American Red Cross until 1922. Elizabeth Reid and her daughter-in-law then arranged for it to become Reid Hall, an association for American college women abroad. Gertrude Stein even made an appearance in 1931 at the invitation of one of Reid Hall’s art students.

In 1964, Reid Hall was bequeathed to Columbia University. For more current and historical photographs, visit Reid Hall’s Photo Gallery.

The unassuming front entrance to 4 rue de Chevreuse, the home of The American Girls Art Club in Paris from 1893- WWI.

The unassuming front entrance to 4 rue de Chevreuse, the home of The American Girls Art Club in Paris from 1893- 1914.

The view outside toward the courtyard

The view of the Reid Center outside toward the courtyard. Toward the back is a high wall that borders rue de la Grand Chaumiere, a street that is still full of art studios today. The lodgers could take a shortcut to their classes at nearby Académie Colarossi by exiting through a gate in this wall. 

A green classroom shed that was once used as a hospital room for WWI soldiers

In the courtyard: a green classroom shed that was once used as a hospital room for WWI soldiers.

Courtyard seating at the Reid Center today. I wonder how old that tree is?

Courtyard seating at the Reid Center today. I wonder how old that tree is?

The view from the courtyard back toward the main entrance of the Reid Center

The view from the courtyard back toward the main entrance of the Reid Center

Few paintings or sketches of the American Girls Art Club remain, although I was able to find this rendering in a scholarly journal.

The American Girls Art Club

The garden of the American Girls Art Club, artist and date unknown. Source: Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 26. No. 1 (2005)


Sources: and Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005)