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The Feminist Message Behind Mary Cassatt’s Famous Paintings

Mary Cassatt (1844 U.S. —1926, France)

Mary Cassatt was born into the wrong century. As a female in the 19th century, she was expected to marry and have children. However, Mary Cassatt had other dreams! She followed her heart, to the dismay of her parents, to become an artist, entering into the male dominated art world. Mary Cassatt defied all social norms by deciding not to marry and to become an artist, she lived her life by her rules.

Mary Cassatt was born in the USA but moved to Paris in her early adult years in order to pursue her art. She returned to the US for short visits but remained in France for the rest of her life.

After her death, Mary Cassatt and her artworks fell into obscurity for many decades. However, today, the art world recognizes her as a central and active figure in the French impressionism art movement. The most prestigious art museums around the world and serious art patrons seek out Mary Cassatt famous paintings to further enhance their French impressionism collections.

Mary Cassatt Self Portrait Painting
Mary Cassatt Self Portrait Painting

Mary Cassatt & The French Impressionists

As soon as Mary Cassatt saw the revolutionary artworks of the French impressionists in Paris, she moved away from traditional art and adopted their style. Not long after, she joined their inner-circle and started exhibiting with them, alongside Monet, Degas, Manet, Morisot, Renoir & others.

Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt became especially good friends and their friendship lasted throughout their respective artistic careers. Degas mentored her in the use of pastels and copper engraving and they exchanged artistic ideas for over 40 years.

As a female artist, Mary Cassatt was limited with what was “acceptable” for a female to paint. Even in progressive 19th century Paris, respectable women could not walk around the city or travel to the countryside without chaperones. So the subject matter most available to Cassatt for capturing onto her canvases were the lives of contemporary women and their roles as mothers.

However, even within these limitations, Mary Cassatt still managed to portray through her paintings, her strong feminist thoughts. Below are some of these paintings!

Mary Cassatt’s Famous Paintings Portraying her Strong Feminist Views!

1. Lydia Reading the Morning Paper

This is a painting of Mary Cassatt’s older sister, Lydia, who was one of the artist’s preferred models. Mary Cassatt chose to paint this scene with a side-on view of her sister quietly reading a newspaper. Rather than capture her sister, Cassatt aimed to depict the scene itself.

Mary Cassatt fully embraced all the revolutionary impressionism techniques in this painting. She used loose and feathery brushstrokes and painted with bright hues of whites, pinks, blues and greens.

Mary Cassatt was a feminist way before her time. In this painting, she portrays how women in the 19th century were starting to assert themselves in the male dominated world. Cassatt hints at the importance of female literacy and involvement in society beyond the home. By painting her sister reading the newspaper, she is showing how women can and should increase their awareness of current events, something women did not do during this era.

Woman reading a newspaper - Mary Cassatt artwork
Lydia Reading the Morning Paper – Mary Cassatt Painting
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska

A Wonderful Historical Fiction Novel Based on this Painting

The author, Harriet Scott Chessman, was inspired by this painting of Lydia. So much so, that she wrote a wonderful art historical novel entitled Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper. In this book​, the author ​draws you into the fascinating world of Mary Cassatt​. However, the interesting twist is that we view the artist through the lens of her older sister, Lydia Cassatt.

​Little is known about Lydia​ except that she never married and suffered with a severe kidney disorder called Bright’s disease . She died in her mid forties​.

To fill in the gaps about Lydia, the author​ ​collected biographical information ​about Mary Cassatt & her family​. Chessman also researched how the Parisians of the Cassatt socio-economic standing lived during the 19th century. Based on these details, she fleshed out this wonderful novel.

The novel is structured around five portraits of Lydia that Mary Cassatt painted between the years 1878 and 1881. Each portrait has it’s own chapter and there is a full color reproduction of the painting for reference. 

Overall, the book beautifully portrays the relationship between the two sisters and the privileged life of the Cassatt family in Paris. The pages transports you into the intriguing artistic & cultural Paris scene of 19th century. You will get a glimpse into Mary Cassatt’s close relationship with the impressionism artist Edgar Degas and the imagined stories behind each of Cassatt’s paintings.

This novel first published on the 75th anniversary of Mary Cassatt’s death. It is a fabulous book, that I highly recommend.

Below is an affiliate link for a product that I recommend. If you make a purchase through this link, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.

2. Reading “Le Figaro”, 1878

Mary Cassatt's famous paintings - Reading Le Figaro
Mary Cassatt’s famous paintings – Reading Le Figaro

Again Mary Cassatt portrays the “Modern Woman” of the 19th century. The subject of this painting is her mother, Katherine Cassatt. She strongly believed that women should be educated so that they are knowledgeable and socially active. In this painting, Katherine Cassatt is reading “Le Figaro”, the French daily morning newspaper founded in 1826. Mary Cassatt’s mother kept herself updated with current events and politics.  She greatly influenced both Mary and Lydia’s progressive ideas.

3. A Woman and a Girl Driving, 1881

Mary Cassatt famous paintings - A woman & a girl driving
Mary Cassatt Famous Paintings – A Woman & a Girl Driving, 1881

By the 1880s, Parisian women were starting to drive horse carriages both in the countryside and in the city. This was a huge step forward for women’s independence. Mary Cassatt, being a feminist herself, portrays this pivotal historical moment. It shows an educated and independent woman taking the reins both literally and metaphorically (over her life).

This painting is in fact of her sister, Lydia and a Edgar Degas’ niece. Cassatt has strategically placed Lydia’s hands in the center of the painting, showing that she is in total command of the reins. The top-hatted male valet is sitting passively in the back of the carriage. He is being transported by a woman!

Cassatt portrays a young girl growing up with the “New Modern Woman” as her role model. Indeed, Mary Cassatt, her mother and sister, were all pre-cursors to the feminism movement that emerged only a few decades later.

For more information about other trailblazing female artists of the 19th century, check out the articles below: