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Art Review: Mary Cassatt and American Impressionism

In the late 19th century, Impressionist painting was the avant-garde style coming out of Paris. This style explored the formal qualities of color and light through loose brushwork and open compositions. Yet Impressionists painters, such as Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, were not just painting pretty pictures. They depicted contemporary urban life in Paris, and the subject matter scandalized art patrons who were more accustomed to classical scenes.

Among the notable painters of this movement, there was one woman– an American woman, Mary Cassatt. As the daughter of a wealthy family, Cassatt was able to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to pursue her career. But she grew tired of drawing from plaster casts and set off toward Paris in search of a new, less traditional education. She permanently settled in Paris, and in 1877 was invited by Degas to show with the Impressionists. Of similar disposition and painterly inclination, Cassatt’s rejection of the academy made her an easy fit into the Impressionist scene.

Cassatt is most famously known for her mother and child paintings. The Wichita Art Museum holds an exemplary painting by Cassatt, simply titled “Mother and Child.” Cassatt devoted many canvases to this relationship, but in this painting, viewers can see that she does not elevate the status of the pair through religious or divine iconography. Instead, she reveals the quieter moments of beauty exchanged between mothers and their children. Commonplace, ordinary, yet captivating, Cassatt’s ability to convey these intensely private moments through an exquisite painterly technique places her as a key figure of American Impressionism.