Mom & Mary Cassatt & You
March 9, 2018
By Beth Herrild
During this week of International Women’s Day, and always, let’s try to remember to pay tribute to all of the women who came before us. In the art world, women and people of color have struggled for generations to gain recognition and even a fair chance for an education. By being a strong woman and working toward your dreams, you make their struggles all worthwhile and help pave the way for the women coming up behind you. To quote one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My mom wanted to go to art school after high school. She was a straight A student, creative and intelligent. But alas, in 1941 rural Indiana, her father insisted that there were only 2 reasons for a woman to attend college: to be a nurse or a teacher. Though she always did creative things in her life, they were almost exclusively channeled into traditionally female types of activities, like decorating. She didn’t begin painting until she was fifty years old and it transformed her life! She would look up into the sky while driving and exclaim how it wasn’t until she began painting that she really noticed all of the colors in the world. She then began teaching painting to other women her age who needed encouragement to stretch a little. This gave her great joy. I often wonder what she could have done if her wings had not been clipped and she had not suffered with low self esteem. I am paying tribute to her by having a degree in fine arts and creating a business to share art and creativity with both children & adults.
Mary Cassatt, one of the few female artists whose work is now incredibly well known, also faced discrimination from art schools and a father who refused to support her pursuit of a career in art. She took classes at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, but was met with ridicule and scorn from fellow students and teachers and soon became board with the lack of depth in the instruction. She moved to Paris at age of 22 despite strong objections from her parents. As a woman, she was not able to study at the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but was able to obtain private instruction from some of the masters. I wonder what discrimination and harassment she faced while doing this? Certainly, if she had not come from an affluent family, none of this would have been possible at all. We know that her family eventually came around and actually joined her in Paris much later on. She often used family members as models for her artwork.
She is famous for her paintings, drawings and prints of mothers and children, focusing on the bond between them. Although she chose these subjects because she was drawn to women in everyday domestic settings, her work may not have reflected these subjects at all if she had been allowed to set up her easel in the cafe’s of Paris as the male painters often did.
Mary Cassatt had a long successful career despite many obstacles. She, like many strong women in our history, had to decide early on, that having a career was more important to her than having a family. Women should never have to make that choice. Perhaps she became fascinated with the intimate moments between mothers and children because she knew she would never have children of her own.
To quote Mary Oliver again, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” So, please, pursue your dreams and help empower younger women to do the same!