Her Brother Was Who? The Cassatt Connection to the Shore

The Mandolin Player, 1868, Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), oil paint on canvas. General Investment Group LLC, California, Rami Ron.

By Martha Wessells Steger 
Special to the Eastern Shore Post 

The railroad is gone from Accomack and Northampton counties. It can’t even make another comeback – the tracks have been ripped up – after several reincarnations in its hundred-plus-years’ use in Virginia’s two easternmost counties. 

A distant-future generation might someday wonder what that was that ran down the center of the Eastern Shore – but the railroad story will continue to live in history, sometimes indirectly and maybe with a bit of research. An oblique railroad-art connection came to mind when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, located in Richmond, announced its newest exhibit, “Whistler to Cassatt: America Painters in France.” 

Nothing in the extensive exhibition mentions featured artist Mary Cassatt’s brother, Alexander, or the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Perhaps turnabout is fair play, as a historical marker placed years ago at the Eastern Shore Railway Museum in Parksley had no space to mention Alexander’s famous artist-sister. 

Alexander is the one for whom Parksley’s Cassatt Street was named: He was president of the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad, responsible for laying, in only six months, the railroad tracks connecting Pocomoke City, Md., to Norfolk, Va., in 1884. At that time, his 40-year-old sister had returned to Paris after having lost a lot of her early works in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

The Exhibition 
The VMFA exhibition – on view until July 31 – focuses on Mary Cassatt and other aspiring American artists who left the United States between the late 19th and early 20th centuries to train abroad. Paris underwent a big transition between 1852-1870, becoming the place tourists find today – of wide avenues, parks, squares. Illuminated by gaslights, it became the “City of Light.” Cassatt and James Abbott McNeill Whistler were in the first wave of expatriate artists to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and returned to become some of the greatest influencers to shape American art. 

The VMFA curator and staff provide helpful context for what Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s director and CEO, calls “one of the most complex and transformative periods in American art history.” In addition to Cassatt’s and Whistler’s works, the 112 exhibited pieces showcase paintings and sketches by Cecelia Beaux, Frank Weston Benson, William Merritt Chase, William J. Glackens, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, Theodore Robinson, John Singer Sargent, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and John Henry Twachtman. 

Because of the kaleidoscope of social, economic, and political change that occurred between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, artists who were out of the United States for an extended period of time found a different country when they returned. The changes – according to Susan J. Rawles, the VMFA’s Elizabeth Locke associate curator who curated the exhibition – had “thrust America into a state of flux, challenging its quest for a national identity, leading to a question of who and what constitutes the American in American art?” 

Women Artists 
Returning artists often introduced more realistic subject matter of daily life – efforts sometimes seen as “unAmerican.” The exhibition demonstrates the period’s radicalism and sheds light on the women artists, who were radical, too, determined to become professional painters. In Cassatt’s case, she had to overcome her father’s objections to her serious study of art; she financed her own travel to Paris. In addition to women being denied entrance to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts until 1897, they were also excluded from café society – an important opportunity to socialize. 

Cassatt’s paintings of familial scenes – specifically women and children – so widely recognized as her definitive work today don’t appear at first glance to be innovative. At her time in history, she was exploring avant-garde practices, such as experimenting with Asian-inspired technology. Becoming known for bold contours, a massing of colors, and flattened, tilted perspectives, she was the first American artist invited to exhibit with the Impressionists – a group that provided uplifting, colorful work for gallery and museum visitors. 

The VMFA has recreated for visitors a dramatic gallery reminiscent of Paris’s Exposition des Beaux- Arts’ salon, the most important exhibition of juried works held annually in late-19th-century Paris. When Cassatt’s oil painting “Mandolin Player” was accepted for exhibition at the salon, she joined Elizabeth Jane Gardner and Eliza Haldeman as the first American women to be so honored. The painting, among those at the VMFA including several of her informal family portraits, shows Cassatt’s classic style using a plain, dark background with rich tones and a strong contrast of light and shadow, setting off the face, neck, and shoulders of the daydreaming musician. 

Her teachers from the Barbizon School comprised the first group of artists to travel into the Forest of Fontainebleau to paint nature as they saw it. Employing rich, earthy colors applied with a freer, looser brush, they traded the style of respected academic painting for an appreciation of the environment. They planted the seeds for realism and impressionism. 

“We have become so accustomed to styles like impressionism,” Rawles said, “that we forget how wickedly radical it was, or that a handful of American expatriate painters became the country’s first modernists.” 

Alexander Cassatt would be very proud of his sister.

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