Mary Cassatt: 5 things you might not know

My friend Leslee came into my classroom last week and told me, “Great news! The Traveling Art Exhibit has arrived!” I spent most of that week running around like a crazy person getting my classroom ready for Open House (which is always right before Spring Break). When Leslee said, “I’ve already put it up.” I breathed a huge sigh of relief, told my friend thank you and made sure the children in my classroom enjoyed the exhibit every day. Our PTA was kind enough to purchase the Traveling Art Exhibit and introduce Mary Cassatt and Frederic Remington to our students.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) has always been one of my favorite artists and I was thrilled that I was not only a classroom teacher but also an art teacher for one week.

Mary Cassatt was one of the leading American Impressionist artists. Born in Pittsburgh and influenced in France by Degas. She is famous for capturing women in everyday, honest and domestic settings. The emotion felt when looking at her paintings (specifically the mothers with their children) still resonates today…it is timeless. She was strong and independent, yet with an amazing talent to capture both the strength and gentleness of mothers.

You might not know…

In Pittsburgh, Mary Cassatt grew up with high social standing. Her father was a well-to-do real estate and investment broker. She was schooled to be a proper wife and mother taking classes like homemaking, embroidery, music, sketching and painting. During the 1850’s, the Cassatt family took their children abroad to live in Europe for several years. In regards to her making a living as an artist, her father had strong objections and said, “I would almost rather see you dead than living abroad as a bohemian.”

1. Mary Cassatt referred to Edgar Degas as “my best, my only, friend.” She also said of Degas, “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art.” 

2. She was known for her large and elaborate hats. Degas said of Cassatt, Most women paint as though they are trimming hats. Not you.”

3. Mary Cassatt was the only American to exhibit with the French Impressionists. She said, “I hated conventional art. I began to live.”

4. She was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia and cataracts in 1911. By 1914 she was almost blind when she took up the cause of women’s suffrage, and showed eighteen works in an exhibition supporting the movement.

5. Cassatt’s red brick house, Chateau de Beaufresne, was turned into a home for abandoned children after she died.

Five more for children…

Questions and mini-lessons that teachers asked and told their classes:
1. Do you think Mary Cassatt was a mother? No, she wasn’t. Her whole life prepared her for it…homemaking, embroidery, music and painting but she never married. She said, “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.”

2. Do you think most women during the 1800’s were like Mary Cassatt? Did most women have careers like she did? What do you think they did?

3. Mary Cassatt was a huge fan of hats. What does her hat remind you of?

4. Mary Cassatt’s father was strongly against Mary becoming an artist. How do you think her father felt when he looked at her paintings?

5. Mary Cassatt had poor eyesight. When she died at 82, she was blind. How do you think she felt about not being able to see her paintings?

My second grade class enjoying Mary Cassatt’s work.

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