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Portrait of An Artist

ISSUE:  Winter 1976
Mary Cassatt. By Nancy Hale Doubleday. $10.00

IN 1960, for a class of note-taking students in Paris, an art historian named Max-Pol Fouchet reeled off the names of the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Manet, Morisot. . .

“What about Mary Cassatt?” someone asked.

“Ah, Miss Cassatt,” laughed the professor (with overplayed derision, I thought) and repeated a version of Degas’s quip about one of Cassatt’s paintings: “”Encore un Enfant Jésus avec sa nurse.”“

Nancy Hale, in her biography of Mary Cassatt, sets nearly the same remark in a context which illuminates the relationship between Degas and the American Impressionist and suggests Degas’ sensitivity to his protégéeapos;s work. Looking now at the painting in question (Mother and Boy, 1901, Metropolitan Museum), one sees what Degas meant.

Miss Hale examines many pictures in this book (her first biography), usually in search of clues to the development of Mary Cassatt’s personality. This aspect of Miss Hale’s biographical method is founded on a jeweler’s eye for art and a stated belief that “an artist’s work is not merely like his life; it is his life.” The account is elliptic, Jungian; insights are transmitted by inference or association rather than by a standard rational progression. Miss Hale provides background of the Impressionist movement, carefully researched information on people Mary Cassatt knew, succinct explanations of graphic techniques; but the expository passages, however authoritative, are as though incidental. At heart the book is speculative: guesswork informed by a particular sensibility.

A writer trying to guess the mind of an unmarried Victorian lady is aiming at a covered target. Mary Cassatt avoided introspection until her old age (to her cost, Miss Hale suggests). On the surface, she accepted what, socially, a Mary Cassatt did and didn’t do and let it go at that. The ambivalence of her day toward “such. . .young ladies as solved the problem of their womanhood by way of art—choosing its rather than society’s aims for themselves,” did not deter her from proceeding decisively on her career as soon as she had graduated “at the head of the ladies,” from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Photographs of Mary Cassatt included in this biography reveal a bearing characteristic of one who thinks well of herself. She apparently did not feel for the women she painted as she felt for herself. Her empathy was restricted to the children.

It was Degas who suggested the theme of mothers and children to Miss Cassatt (as being “unworked,” proof of his ability to be tactful if he chose). Nancy Hale sees the flowering of mother and child paintings which began in 1880 as a surrogate maternity phase, She presents Degas as a sort of male Muse, even as an Apollo, who provided, by suggestion, the subject for much of Mary Cassatt’s work for the rest of her life.

Degas was no Apollo. Mary Cassatt admired him as a painter to the point that she let him work on at least one painting of her own, but she called him a “mauvais charactère.” Had she thought in mythological terms, she might perhaps have seen him as Hephaestus: part god, granted, but flawed. Cassatt’s child subjects suggest a not-yet-limited potential; they depict, it seems, the painter’s sense of what an unflawed creature would be. The maternal figure comes across as an accoutrement to the child, as merely a sort of throne. Is Childhood then the Muse?

Degas is, of course, a vivid presence in the book. The Cassatt family—prosaic, insular and finally expatriate—is also thoroughly looked into. Mary Cassatt’s actions often emerged from a sense of family, Miss Hale demonstrates; Mary’s originality can be best appreciated against this background. Louisine Elder Havemeyer, also of significance in Mary Cassatt’s story, describes herself in passages quoted from her frequent and devoted letters and from an account of the art-buying collaboration with Miss Cassatt which resulted in the Havemeyer Collection. Another friend, James Stillman, is winningly presented; Miss Cassatt shared his fondness for motor touring. Forbes Watson, a younger contemporary, also toured with Mary.

As they tooled along in the Renault behind Pierre, Mary reminisced. . . . Gradually it was borne in upon the art expert that this old woman had worked out her own artistic problems in the galleries of Europe instead of in Paris ateliers. It was further oorne in on him that she had been almost the only American art student not to be over-awed by the Salon system and the only one who had embraced Impressionism from the start (p.278).

Nancy Hale comments pointedly on some of the opinions she quotes. Of one observer of Mary Cassatt, she writes: “He took well-bred ways to denote wealth, a common misreading of social nuance,” and, apropos of the literary tastes of the painter’s father, “War and Peace is almost a litmus paper for whether one is a reader or not.” (Mr, Cassatt failed to see what Mary “found in it to be so pleased about.”) These statements are based, surely, on long-standing knowledge of a milieu similar to the Casatts’. They have the unarguable ring of proverbs.

In another way, the pages of conjecture are unarguable, too. When the biographer writes without a safety net of provable fact, all but the most docile reader may feel provoked, in effect, to mutter, “My guess is as good as hers.” Some of the psychological concepts Nancy Hale applies—the notion of art as a compensatory activity, for example, or the immensity of a child’s shock at finding out that neither parent is perfect—may call forth a resistance fathomless to logic. There must then occur a stand-off between reader and writer.

Conjectural passages which coincide with one’s own way of seeing things seem, of course, to justify the system. Coming upon these in any book is like being sprung from solitary. In Mary Cassait one such passage, for this reader, was an essay concerning the “innocent eye” peculiar to artists, children, fools and, one gathers, peyote eaters.

In 1910, at 67, Mary Cassait went to Egypt with her brother and his family. The chapters about this journey and its effect must have been among the most difficult in the book to write; they are demanding even of the reader, who may react incredulously to the account of Miss Cassatt’s mental upheaval, ascribed by Miss Hale to the painter’s encounter with Egyptian art. Letters from Mary Cassatt after the trip, despite her lack of introspection, attest to a great change. She sounds, in fact, undone. Returned to Paris, she wrote Mrs. Havemeyer:

All that Egypt has left of me arrived this morning. What an experience, I fought against it but it conquered, it is surely, surely the greatest Art the past has left us. All strength, no room in that first empire for grace, for charm, for children, none. . . . How are my feeble hands ever to paint the effect on me? I am so weak now I could not do anything (p.233).

Earlier, Nancy Hale has seemed to circle around the wounding events of Mary’s childhood, around the painter’s celibacy and a series of riding accidents which befell her in her forties for clues to her subject’s inward state. She has written of ties between emotional needs and artistic production, between, so to speak, the child who receives impressions pellmell and the adult who organizes them willy-nilly, ties by which the artist as a man, grown up, hence limited, may yet retain the eye of a child which balks of overt interpretation and escapes the limits of ordinary vision. To participate in Mary Cassatt’s Egyptian experience as Nancy Hale describes it is to acknowledge such ties.

The biographer’s major implications are reckoned up in the chapters on Mary Cassatt’s last years. Their sum conveys Nancy Rale’s sense of the art of Cassatt as deriving from an involuted and secret system by which the painter’s psyche could simultaneously declare and conceal itself. This is a clumsy notion, if pictured concretely (which Miss Hale forbears to do); oddly, it is analogous to the actual physical procedure of painting. One other inference, repeatedly suggested, takes the chill off the paradox: Mary Cassatt’s system for coping with life is also seen as a means to praise it.


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