Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mary Cassatt

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844-June 14, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She lived much of her adult life in France. In 1877 Mary met another artist called Edward Degas. He introduced her to other painters who were known as Impressionists. The Impressionists painted scenes from everyday life. They also painted with splotches of colour and Mary liked the colours they used and how they used them. Mary used some of the Impressionists’ ideas in her own paintings. 

She did this self-portrait (on the left) in 1878 and she used lighter colours and looser brush strokes. Most Impressionists painted outdoor scenes. Mary used the Impressionist ideas but she painted indoor scenes. Most of her paintings are portraits of her family, friends and neighbours.

Mary never married or had any children. During the last years of her life, Mary’s eyesight failed and she could not paint. Mary Cassatt died on 14th June 1926. She was 82.

Mary Cassatt is remembered for her gentle pictures of mothers and children. She was important as a female artist because she was the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists.

Happy Birthday Mary
I highly recommend this very sweet book based on Mary Cassatt's painting. The language takes on a lyrical quality as it entices us into the world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. The story is told by Mary’s sister Lydia. It is a fictionalized story based on the relationship between the American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt and her sister, Lydia, who narrates the story. 

The novel revolves around sessions in which Lydia poses for her sister. Lydia, 41, who is dying of Bright's disease. On a good day sitting and holding a newspaper while Mary paints her is physically exhausting. On a bad day, getting out of bed would be an impossible trick.

Mary, seven years her junior, is on the cusp of realizing her creative ambitions, having been accepted as the only woman in the inner circle of late 19th Century impressionists who were stirring up Paris and the art world.

These sisters savor their time together because they deeply love each other and they know they'll soon be parted. Much goes unspoken. The younger sister avoids acknowledging that Lydia has little time left and the older woman doesn't force the conversation. They communicate through the work. "I was sick again this morning, and May (Lydia refers to her sister by this nickname throughout) looked discouraged as she helped me wash my face and get dressed. I wonder whether this will be May's last picture of me. I think May wonders this too, because there's a new quietness between us. She's intensely focused on her work, and she paints for a long time without a pause."

The third and only other significant character in the book is Degas. In real life, Degas was Lydia's close friend and mentor. They may or may not have been lovers. The descriptions of Degas are among the best parts of this luminous book. Lydia knows well the famous painter's reputation for cruelty but experiences only kindness and respect from him. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the story for me, is Lydia’s perception of the relationship between Mary and Degas.

"Women should be someone and not something.”
by Mary Cassatt

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