Mary Stevenson Cassatt – (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926) and Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946)
Allegheny, Pennsylvania (what is now Pittsburg) was the birthplace of two extraordinary women whose contributions to arts and literature were bold, daring and in the case of Mary , revolutionary. Though separated in birth by thirty years both women found their refuge and eventual success in Paris, which would also become their final resting grounds.
Born to wealthy, upper-class families (Cassatt’s father a railroad executive and Stein’s the director of the San Francisco street car lines) each were given excellent educational opportunities where in addition to their schooling, travel was an essential component. Though Stein’s family relocated to Oakland, California when she was young, both the Stein’s and Cassatt’s took their children abroad, spending time in Europe, (France in particular) as part of the their educations. This time overseas would greatly influence the young women in years to come.
At the age of 15, Cassatt enrolled in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts to study painting against her father’s wishes. For at this time in history, it was uncommon and socially unacceptable for women to pursue paying jobs and careers outside the home. Mary’s male peers and professors alike made her time at the Academy difficult because of her drive to make painting a career and as such, she left to study the “Masters” on her own. Between her disillusion with her studies, failed attempts to sell her paintings in the U.S., and her father’s continued disapproval of her career path, Mary decided to relocate to Paris in 1866. There, Mary had the great honor of studying at the Louvre with Master painter Jean-Leon Gerome and in 1868 Thomas Couture and Charles Chaplin.
Steins’ education (though many years later) lead her through a series of tries and misses. Enrolling at Radcliff College in 1893, she spent four years studying psychology only to find that though she excelled in her studies, the field wasn’t a good fit though her time and focus of study would form her later writing style. At the bequest of one of her professors the switched her focus to medical school, becoming a student at John’s Hopkins Medical School in 1899. Though this wasn’t a good fit either, it was there that the naive Miss Stein first witnessed a relationship that would for the basis for her own with Alice Toklas later in life. After her second failed academic attempts, Gertrude followed her brother, in 1903, to Paris, where he studied and collected a vast collection of contemporary art.
Artists trying to find success in Paris in the 1880’s traditionally submitted their work to the Paris Salon, where the work was judged publicly. The outcome of these Salons was the key to an artists success. Mary Cassatt submitted numerous works to the Salon but the judges deemed her work to be too bold, too bright and to accurate in the details of the subject (mainly portraits). She found her mentor in Edgar Degas and her artistic home with the new group of Impressionist painters who held their own exhibitions, among whose names included, Cassatt, Monet, Pissaro, Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir. While the public was, at first was, aghast at this new revolutionary style of painting that corrupted the Academic style of painting in France, it came to define the era of the late 19th century, influencing not only art, but spilling over into literature and music. Cassatt achieved great acclaim for her work, with its height being during the 1890’s. As a self-proclaimed feminist, she joined and supported the suffrage movements, contributing works to various suffragist events. Facing the odds of being a driven female artist in the late 19th century and in forging her way in the new field of Impressionism makes her an outstanding Historical Heroine. Ms. Cassatt passed away in France, June 14, 1926. For her contributions she was awarded the French Legion de Honneur.
Gertrude Stein’s life overlapped with Cassatt’s in not only time and place but in that Stein and her brother were exceptionally active in the art and literary worlds having amassed a very valuable collection of art together. Paris in the 1920’s was the place to be for anyone pursuing a career in art, music or literature. Stein regularly held Salons in her own home, a gathering of the greatest minds and talents of the time. We can count her among the greatest for her contributions to literature with the publication of among many other works, The Making of Americans and her most acclaimed work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Ms. Stein passed away in France, July 27, 1946, twenty years after Ms. Cassatt.