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Musée Jacquemart-André opens a major retrospective devoted to Mary Cassatt
A woman looks at paintings on the eve of the public opening of an exhibition of the work of US artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), a friend and protege of French painter Edgar Degas, at the Jacquemart Andre museum. The exhibition runs until July 23. Philippe LOPEZ / AFP.

PARIS.- Culturespaces and the Musée Jacquemart-André is holding a major retrospective devoted to Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Considered during her lifetime as the greatest American artist, Cassatt lived in France for more than sixty years. She was the only American painter to have exhibited her work with the Impressionists in Paris.

The exhibition focuses on the only American female artist in the Impressionist movement; she was spotted by Degas in the 1874 Salon, and subsequently exhibited her works alongside those of the group. This monographic exhibition enables visitors to rediscover Mary Cassatt through fifty major works, comprising oils, pastels, drawings, and engravings, which, complemented by various documentary sources, convey her modernist approach — that of an American woman in Paris.

Born into a wealthy family of American bankers with French origins, Mary Cassatt spent a few years in France during her childhood, continuing her studies at the Pennsylvania Fine Arts Academy, and eventually settled in Paris. Therefore, she lived on both continents. This cultural duality is evident in the distinctive style of the artist, who succeeded in making her mark in the male world of French art and reconciling these two worlds.

Just like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt excelled in the art of portraiture, to which she adopted an experimental approach. Influenced by the Impressionist movement and its painters who liked to depict daily life, Mary Cassatt’s favourite theme was portraying the members of her family, whom she represented in their intimate environment. Her unique vision and modernist interpretation of a traditional theme such as the mother and child earned her international recognition. Through this subject, the general public will discover many familiar aspects of French Impressionism and Postimpressionism, along with new elements that underscore Mary Cassatt’s decidedly American identity.

The exhibition brings together a selection of exceptional works loaned from major American museums, such as Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Terra Foundation in Chicago; works also have been loaned by prestigious institutions in France — the Musée d’Orsay, the Petit Palais, INHA, and the BnF (French National Library) — and in Europe, such as the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, and the Bührle Foundation in Zurich. There also are many works from private collections. Rarely exhibited, these masterpieces have been brought together in the exhibition for the first time.

The works shown in this introductory section of the exhibition show Cassatt’s earliest major Impressionist works and the paintings from the decade leading up to her meeting with Degas. In the pre-Impressionist works it is easy to see Cassatt’s travels around Europe—from Ecouen to Seville, to Rome—in search of “modern art.” These works were exhibited at the Paris Salon or in major exhibitions in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, making her prominent among peers and drawing the attention of critics and collectors. By 1877, she had even come to the notice of Edgar Degas, who invited her to join the Impressionist group. Her definition of “modern art” was colored by the way newer Parisian trends and Impressionism were understood by the American public. This partially accounts for her experimental approach to Impressionism and her preference for referring to herself as an “Independent.” Also included in this section are several etchings made in conjunction with a print journal that Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro worked on together. Although the journal was never published, prints such as Cassatt’s The Visitor, are beautiful and symbolic of Cassatt’s self-awareness as a “visitor” in Paris.

ROOM 2 - WHO WERE THE CASSATT ? (1880-1888)
As Mary Cassatt adopted the Impressionist method of painting the daily life around them, she began to use her family as her primary models. In the 1881 Impressionist exhibition, it is likely that all of the works she showed represented Cassatt family members. In this section, the viewer can get to know Mary’s sister, the fashionable Lydia Cassatt, who was the principle model for her Impressionist scenes of women. Also included is her brother Alexander shown with his youngest son, Robert, his wife Lois, and their daughter Katharine, who was seventeen at the time. The family was of French Huguenot descent, a fact that allowed them to feel more at home in France, but at the same time they were quintessential Americans. Mary’s family was wealthy, and she traveled to Europe as a child. Her brother became the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the world, and thus by 1900 had extreme wealth and influence. With Mary Cassatt becoming one of the best-known women in America and her brother one of the best-known men, the two siblings made an extraordinary pair.

ROOM 3 - MOTHER AND CHILD (1888-1900)
For a figure painter who specialized in scenes of daily life, Cassatt has painted mainly scenes of women and children for the first two decades of her career. But starting in the early 1880s, she became interested in scenes of women and children together in the familiar subject we call “Mother and Child,” regardless of whether the two are actually related. And in 1888 the family themes we saw developing in her Impressionist work crystallized into the signature mother and child series that is so identified with Mary Cassatt. This section brings together several examples of her first burst of creativity, carrying out several variations of a pose, such as the child seated on the mother’s lap in oils and pastels as well as delicate drypoints. These works retain the light palette and modern life aspects of Impressionism, but they are also consistent with the new style of Symbolism, which finds the meaning and timelessness in everyday life. Many European and American artists who also became preoccupied with themes of maternity include such well known figures as Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and Eugène Carrière, and the lesser-known Americans, George Hitchcock, Gari Melchers, and Abbott Thayer. By the later 1890s, Cassatt’s work took on what Georges Lecomte called in L’Art Impressioniste (1892) the “Sainte Famille moderne” more overtly, using devices reminiscent of Old Master painting.

This section of the exhibition is devoted to works in which Cassatt’s creative process is revealed. She was a student of technique—haunting museums, exhibitions of modern art, and other artists’ studios to study the secrets of their line, brushwork, or color. When she discovered Impressionism, not only did she find greater freedom in her own technique, but she learned the appeal of the unfinished or work in progress. These compositions were occasionally used as preliminary sketches for more monumental works, but the majority were exhibited or sold as they were. Whether in oil or pastel, the long lines and visible strokes show the artist thinking and changing her mind as she develops the composition from the center out. Her interest in the creative process is also behind her success as a printmaker. In the series of drypoints she debuted in 1890, she duplicated the unfinished look of the oils and pastels she was doing at the time. She built up the drypoint in thousands of tiny lines yet leaving the composition looking like it has just begun. In her masterful color prints of the next year, she experimented to find a way to suggest Japanese prints using Western intaglio methods. She then exhibited early states of these prints alongside final states, just as can be seen in this section.

ROOM 5 - MODERNITÉ (1892 – 1915)
Mary Cassatt was born into a generation that saw great strides for women around the world. In her youth, she and most Americans believed that women had gained more rights and respect in France than in the United States. As her first adult visit to France stretched into almost sixty years, to become a complete life in France, she felt this to be true in her own experience. “After all, give me France,” she wrote in 1894, “women do not have to fight for recognition here, if they do serious work.” But even though the French and American systems of art production were very different, and women benefited in many ways from the French government sponsorship of the arts, Cassatt was nevertheless also a product of the American vision of modernity for women. This section presents works related to Cassatt’s huge Modern Woman mural for the Woman’s Building of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, showing her interpretation of the pavilion’s theme, “Women Picking Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.” To Cassatt, the modern woman was a thinking woman, captured in a state of contemplation and ease in the world. The fruit that was picked was to be shared with other women and, yes, with what she believed were “modern” children. After 1900, she was frequently asked to do portraits of her friend’s children, whose enormous hats were not only up to the minute in style, but radiate the color and light of the thoughts of these contemplative children, the future of the modern world.

In 1915, she and her friend Louisine Havemeyer mounted an exhibition in New York of her work alongside that of Degas and selected Old Masters. It was to benefit the Woman’s Suffrage Movement in which Havemeyer was a visible leader. Although this was Cassatt’s only overtly political act, it crowned a lifetime of private actions that showed her support for the achievements of women, and her belief in her own effectiveness as an artist and a pioneer.

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