Thoroughly Modern Woman

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Thoroughly Modern Woman


"Modern Woman" is not just the title of the Art Institute's new Mary Cassatt retrospective, it is a telling description of the artist herself. Having chosen career over marriage, Europe over the United States and art above all, Cassatt indeed epitomized the modern woman.

Challenging 19th century conventions, she pursued a career as an artist, which - at the time - was largely the province of men. More importantly, she excelled at it. Recognized by her peers as an artist of considerable importance, Cassatt was the only American whose works were included with the Impressionists at their Paris exhibitions. (Although she lived most of her life as an expatriate, Cassatt nevertheless identified herself as an American).

Renowned for her paintings, she was also an innovative print maker and an ardent patron who was instrumental in securing masterworks for American collectors.

The early years

Born into a well-to-do Pittsburgh family, Cassatt (1844-1926) enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1860. Five years later, disappointed at the lack of important works available in the United States and believing that Europe offered greater opportunities to study, she left for Paris.

During the day, she took classes with Charles Chaplin, at night, she studied in the Latin Quarter and, in her spare time, copied works at the Musee du Louvre. A year later, renowned academic painter Jean Leon Gerome accepted her as a student and by 1868 (and again in 1870), the Salon, France's state-sponsored art exhibition, had accepted her works as well.

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 forced her return to the United States. In 1872, the Bishop of Pittsburgh commissioned her to copy Correggio's "Madonna of Saint Jerome" and "Coronation of the Virgin," which prompted a trip to Parma, Italy. In Italy, while copying works by Correggio and other Renaissance masters, she continued to work on paintings for the Salon.

In the pursuit of more masterworks to study, she again defied convention and traveled alone to Spain where she discovered Velazquez and Murillo, artists whose paintings markedly influenced her during this period. …

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