It’s really to Mary Cassatt’s credit that it took me so long to find where her work is hanging in The Met. I strolled in the door went straight up the grand stairs, turned, and headed for the Impressionists, where I expected Cassatt’s work to be alongside her friends and contemporaries: Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and so forth—the heavy hitters.
Of course none of her work was there—just Renoir after Renoir. I tried my best to cover my Met name badge while sheepishly consulting our website on my phone. Even though Mary Cassatt did much of her work in Europe, as part of an art movement that’s replete with Europeans, her work lies in the American Wing, so I bounded off through photography, through European history and into the presence of Cassatt, born on this day, May 22, in Pennsylvania 1844.
And while being mistaken for a European Impressionist seems like high praise, Cassatt’s in good company in the American Wing, sharing galleries with her fellow so-called “American Impressionists” like Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent.
It’s also interesting to view Cassatt’s work among other artists who are women. Just as demonstrated by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who was a portraitist in the French court of late 18th century, there is value in what perspectives other than the typical one can bring. Cassatt, like Le Brun, is particularly adept at capturing a window to the world of women at the time—her subjects are often her family and friends doing things like having tea, or crocheting in the garden.
But yet again, from the “subject” angle, it seems Cassatt belongs closer to Degas. Among the major Impressionists, with whom much of Cassatt’s work was originally exhibited in France, Cassatt and Degas were two that focused the most on portraits of individuals, particularly women in private moments.
Whether attributable to the artist’s gender or not, Degas’s subjects rarely had names—with one noteworthy exception being his painting of Cassatt herself—and his interest in faces waxed and waned.
While grouping artists based on geography is a mixed bag, Cassatt’s work does fit nicely alongside her fellow American who decamped to France and became an expressive portraitist known for sensitivity to the sitter’s personality, John Singer Sargent.
You need no excuse to go see Cassatt’s work, but if you need one, her birthday is as good an excuse as any. You’ll find her over in the American Wing.