Mary Cassatt is one of my mother’s favorite Impressionists. She loves the tender portrayals of the mother gently bathing her toddler, gazing fondly as she nurses her beloved infant, or otherwise sharing precious and serene moments in daily life.
I have always wondered why there were no portraits of the tantrum, the lacy collar covered in barf, or the at-her-wits-end parent dealing with an explosive diaper as appalled diners look down from their stools in the snooty café. Maybe these images are missing from Mary’s portfolio because she idealized motherhood, because she fantasized about what it would be like, because she herself was childfree.
Not being privy to her private thoughts and longings, I can’t pose an answer to why she chose her subjects, but I can celebrate her enormous success as an artist.
Born into privilege in America in 1844, Mary traveled extensively as a child, then spent many of her working years in France. There were many obstacles. At times, her father, who objected her choice of career, paid for her basic living expenses, but refused to cover her painting supplies. One custom of the day was that women painters were not allowed to use live models. Nonetheless, she persevered and created an extraordinary career. Her first notable success came when her Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was purchased at the 1872 Salon. Then she seemed to hit her stride, starting in 1879 when she displayed 11 works at the Impressionists exhibit—alongside Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Paul Cézanne—and turned a profit. Her paintings have since sold for as much as $2.9 million.
In her later years, Mary advised major art collectors and encouraged them to donate their purchases to American art museums. For her many contributions to the art world, France awarded her with the Légion d’honneur in 1904. She championed women’s rights and, in 1915, included eighteen paintings in an exhibition that supported the women’s suffrage movement. Today her work is shown in prestigious museums around the world.
Maybe in her day she also heard, “You’re not a mother, how would you know?” But she sure knew what would appeal to generations of art lovers and collectors.
Kathleen Guthrie is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She’s finding inspiration in the stories of many of our “cheroes” (heroes who are childfree) as we celebrate National Women’s History Month.