Episode 248: Mary Cassatt

Mary circa 1914, Smithsonian

Mary Cassatt may be best known for her paintings of women and children, but she lived a long life full of much more: bold moves, societal-norm evasion, adventure, a big family, and a bigger personality.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania the fourth of five children of Robert Simpson Cassett and Katherine Johnston Cassett. Her parents were quite wealthy and had a sort of wanderlust approach to residences, moving the family quite a bit, even to Europe for an extended time. Mary grew up multi-lingual, very curious, and very, very interested in becoming an artist.

She was able to begin working toward that goal at 16 when she entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadephia and continued when she (with her mama as a chaperone) moved to Paris in 1865 when she was 21 years old. She built her skills by copying masters’ paintings in the Louvre, studying with artists in Paris, and upped her game when she began to be selected to show at the prestigious Le Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris. She continued her education by traveling throughout Europe with friends to study the art of the area, practice, and in one case, complete a commission that made her the Belle of Parma for a season. She never stopped that education.

Mary’s first Salon acceptance, The Mandolin Player, 1868

Mary joined a small group of artists in Paris who were thinking the same thing that she was: there is another way to paint than the one, traditional way approved by the Salon judges. These folks even had a name for their merry band of artists: The Impressionists, and Mary joined them when she was 33 in 1874. Big names now like Degas, Monet, Pissaro, Renoir… while Mary wasn’t the only woman, she was the only American. With the Impressionists, she painted scenes of everyday life (in places where she, as a woman of a certain class, was allowed to go) and, eventually, began the work she is most famous for: women and children.

Mary’s mother, Katherine, reading the newspaper, Reading Le Figaro, 1878

Look at the background of this, and the creeper staring at our heroine. In The Loge, 1878
This painting caused quite a stir, one of the women’s faces is covered by a cup! Mercy! The Tea, 1880

For her entire life, Mary was always learning, always practicing, and always adapting her art as her mind, her life, and her body began to change. She made the decision to never marry, and (no shock) she had a full life of family and friends. In addition to becoming a world-renowned painter and printmaker, she assisted many people in the role of art consultant, helping them amass their art collections of various styles and artists, and made herself available to advise and support young artists.

Not only did Mary achieve her dream of an art career, she helped others achieve theirs.

One of both of our favorites, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878

Mary was always experimenting with her art, this is part of her print-making era. Woman Bathing, 1891
This is the painting that Beckett was talking about that shows a very common Mom emotion. Breakfast in Bed 1897

Mary Cassatt died at her home, Chateau de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Theribus, France on June 14, 1926. She was 82 years old. She left behind an enormous body of work, much of which was in private collections and has since been donated to museums around the world.

The biggie we used (literally and figuratively) by Nancy Mowll Mathews
by Griselda Pollock
Little but thorough, by Georgette Gouveia
And then we have some coffee table books…this one for The Art Institute of Chicago
Coffee table book by Judith A. Barter and Sue Roe
By William Cane and Anna Gabrielle

The Library of Congress has a listing of places where you can (virtually) see Mary’s work. We heart the Library of Congress.

There is a lot of information and a collection of (most) of her work at MaryCassatt.org.

Why did we keep saying that Impressionist painting was so radical? Here’s an article about that in The Week.

Very cool resource: Pieces Mary applied to be shown at the Salon in Paris, by acceptance and rejection. Impressionism.nl (and lots of other artists’ work, too!)

If you happen to be in Philadelphia at tea time, here’s the Mary Cassatt Tea Room!

A couple of podcasts we liked; The Lonely Palette, E21, and The Art History Babes, Impressionism

And we await a biopic (you know how to pronounce that, right?) let’s get on this film people, Mary had a big personality and lots of life material for a movie!

Episode: 198: Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor; an artist. Period. Despite getting attention as a female sculptor of mixed race, the first Black and Native American professional sculptor in the world- she wanted to drop the descriptors and simply be known for her work.

Edmonia in Rome, Circa 1870

Mary Edmonia Lewis was born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush (now known as Rensselaer) New York to Samuel and Catherine Mike Lewis. She had an older, half-brother (also named Samuel) and even untangling this bit of information has been a battle for historians. Edmonia was a great sculptor and a wise marketer who knew what subjects to focus on that would sell, and what story to give any reporter sitting in front of her that would get her attention even if it was contradictory to previous interviews. There were no journals or cache of letters left to spell out the truth of her life, so it’s still being puzzled together 215 years after her death.

What is known is that her father was Black, her mother was Native American and they both passed away when Edmonia was a child. She was raised by maternal relatives, and educated aaaaalmost through college at Oblerlin, thanks to her brother who funded her education from wealth earned during the California Gold Rush.

After a move to Boston and some advantageous introductions to a community of abolitionists (and abolition art collectors) she began her career as a sculptor, earned enough to move to Rome (after a European, Grand tour) and set up her own studio that was so important it was literally on the map of Must See places tourists should visit.

Edmonia had to learn anatomical sculpting the old-fashioned way, by copying masters’ work like this one of Moses by Michelangelo. 

Her neoclassical style, combined with subjects that focused on both her Black and North American Indigenous heritage, busts of famous people…and also of people who commissioned her services…set her on a path to artistic superstardom.

She did a series of pieces focused on Indigenous Americans, this is Old Arrow Maker, but Hiawatha was also a popular subject of hers. Smithsonian 


And honoring her heritage and the Emancipation Proclamation, Forever Free, 1867, remains one of her most popular pieces. Howard University


Rome provided a community of artisans and, more importantly, a community of ex-pat, women sculptors that allowed Edmonia to have an active, colorful, and productive life. Her statutes were sold all over the world, appeared at worlds’ fairs (oh yes, including *that* one) and she was a global celebrity…

…who faded into the ether after about 20 years, and soon dropped from popularity into obscurity. We flesh out all the details in the episode, but Edmonia died in London on September 17, 1907. She was 63 years old.

Created for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Death of Cleopatra had quite an adventure after the fair. Smithsonian American Art Museum


Time Travel With The History Chicks


By Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson


By Kirsten Pai Buick


Middle grade: by Jasmine Walls and Bex Glendining


A verse novel, by Jeanine Atkins



A wealth of information from a self-proclaimed “independent scholar” about Edmonia, including some back story on some of her most famous works, at Discovering Edmonia Lewis,  including this lovely (and easy to understand) explanation of NeoClassical art and the artists who used the style in innovative ways.

The website maintained by authors of Edmonia Lewis: A Narrative Biography is at Edmonia Lewis.com.

A peek into one of Edmonia’s trips to the US, to Cincinnati in 1878 is fun to see how she worked to market her pieces, how she moved in American society, and sold one piece in particular, Veiled Bride of Spring, on the website Queens of Queen City


Would you like to join us as we visit that statue of Ben Franklin and remember Edmonia…and a whole week of more fun and history in Boston and Newport this October? Check out the tour at Like Minds Travel, spaces are filling fast!