Mary Cassatt at the Museum of Fine Arts in Second Life

Museum of Fine Arts: Mary Cassatt

Currently open at the Museum of Fine Arts in Second Life is the third part of a series celebrating les trois grandes dames of French Impressionism. Having featured Marie Bracquemond in the first part of the exhibition (see: The Museum of Fine Arts in Second Life) and then Berthe Morisot in the second (see: Berthe Morisot at the Museum of Fine Arts), this final part turns to the work of Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926).

Cassatt is perhaps the most unusual of the grand dames, in that she was born in the United States, the daughter of a stockbroker of French descent. Her parents were able to afford to provide her with a well-rounded education that included travel and study in Europe, where she gained her first exposure to music and the arts. It was at this time that she likely gained her first exposure to  some of the great masters including Edgar Degas, would later be both colleague and mentor.

Returning to the United States, she started to formally study art – albeit it against her parent’s wishes – a path that would lead her back to France in her early 20s. At the time, women were unable to the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris – one of the most influential schools of art in the country – and so sought be be privately tutored. It was this bias against women in a foremost school of art that likely further reinforced Cassatt’s support for equal rights, which formed as much a part of her life as her art.

Museum of Fine Arts: Mary Cassatt

Learning under the tutelage of Jean-Léon GérômeCharles Chaplin and Thomas Couture, it was at this time (1868-1870) Cassatt had her first pieces of art accepted for exhibition. Following a visit home to her family in 1870/71, Cassatt returned to France where she enjoyed further success with exhibiting her art, although she became increasingly cynical and outspoken about the male bias against women artists event in many of the art salaons. In return, she was increasingly seen as “troublesome” for her views and straightforwardness – something that perhaps moved her more towards the Impressionist movement, who were just starting to mount their own independent (or “fringe”, as those practising more accepted forms of art may have regarded them) exhibitions.

It was at this time that she came directly into contact with Edgar Degas, who invited her to join their exhibitions and movement. With Degas she formed a life-long, if often strained, friendship, which included experimenting with form and colour, and she continued to enjoy moderate success.

In 1894, Gustave Geffroy referred to Cassatt as one of les trois grandes dames (the three great ladies) of Impressionism alongside Bracquemond and Morisot. However, by that time, Cassatt no longer regarded herself as part of any movement, but rather as an experimentalist and teacher. Similarly, her popular reputation is based on an extensive series of rigorously drawn and tenderly observed paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child, works which she embarked upon after she had started to move away from the impressionist movement – which is not to diminish her role within the movement.

Museum of Fine Arts: Mary Cassatt

The exhibition of Cassatt’s art at the Museum of Fine Arts can – as with the previous exhibitions of Bracquemond’s and Morisot’s work can be found in the pavilion buildings, behind the main gallery. It is broadly split into two parts: the pavilion to the left (as you face them) is predominantly focused on Cassatt’s  work from the 1870s through her time in the impressionist movement, while the pavilion to the right  focuses more on her later work including the aforementioned series of mother and child pieces.

As is the practice at the gallery, the paintings are drawings are presented with wall-mounted information cards, and touching any reproduction will display the information relating to the piece in local chat. All the the pieces are also offered in scale with one another – which, as I’ve noted in past reviews, can make some pieces hard to fully appreciate. To counter this, the gallery offers some of Cassatt’s drawings to scale – but with a larger-scale version alongside to offer the opportunity for clearer appreciation. It’s a simple, but effective approach.

Museum of Fine Arts: Mary Cassatt

One of the attractive features of these exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts is that that bring together works  that might never all be seen together under one roof; as such, this is again an exhibition that connoisseurs of fine art will not want to miss.

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