In celebration of Mary Cassatt’s birthday yesterday, this week’s FRAME|WORK—a weekly blog series highlighting an artwork in the Museums’ permanent collection—features the artist’s penetrating portrait of her mother, Mrs. Robert S. Cassatt, the Artist’s Mother (ca. 1889). This painting is currently on view in Gallery 28 at the de Young.
Educated and well read, the subject of this painting, Katherine Kelso Johnston (later Cassatt), proved a lasting and profound influence on Mary Cassatt throughout her life. According to the artist’s lifelong friend Louisine Havemeyer, “Anyone who had the privilege of knowing Mary Cassatt’s mother would know at once that it could be from her and her only that she and her brother, A.J. Cassatt, inherited their ability.”
When Mary Cassatt was five years old, her family began traveling throughout Europe, a journey that would take five years and during which she learned to speak French and German fluently. Upon their return to Philadelphia, Mrs. Cassatt encouraged her daughter’s interests in culture and the arts, and in 1860, at the age of fifteen, Cassatt enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Cassatt’s dedication to her work ultimately led her to Paris, where she was privately trained by a series of prominent artists, including Jean-Léon Gérôme and Edouard Manet. In Paris, Cassatt repeatedly submitted artwork to the Salon with little success. When her close friend Edgar Degas invited Cassatt to participate in an independent exhibition organized by the group that would later be known as the Impressionists, she readily accepted. Cassatt was the only American artist to be included in any of the Impressionists’ eight exhibitions (she participated in four Impressionist shows in 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886 respectively).
Best known for her depictions of women with their children, here Cassatt presents a subdued and reflective portrayal of her aging mother, whose clear and commanding gaze demonstrates a contemplative intelligence. Drawing from Japanese prints as well as Old Masters techniques, Cassatt renders this–the last portrait of her mother–with complexity and intimacy, revealing an enduring relationship of mutual love and respect.
Mrs. Robert S. Cassatt, the Artist’s Mother is currently on view at the de Young.