The Extraordinary Life of Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1933 in Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1933 in Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel is one of the most extraordinary women I have ever read about. She was a Buddhist scholar and teacher, a prolific writer, and from an early age an inveterate, often solitary, traveler. She became an opera singer to support herself and traveled over much of China and Tibet disguised as a beggar. However, she is probably most well-known as the first western woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa.

Alexandra David-Néel was born on October 24, 1868, to a French father, Louis Pierre David, and a Belgian mother, Alexandrine Borghmans David. Louis David was a school teacher turned revolutionary journalist who fled France after Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851. He settled in Louvain, Belgium where he met Alexandrine. She was 20 years his junior and they were not well-matched in intellect or interests.

Although, Alexandra grew up in Belgium, her father received permission to travel to Paris shortly before her birth so that she could be born a French citizen. Alexandra’s memories of her childhood sound bleak. She remembered her father as aloof and her mother as being primarily interested in social concerns. She felt neglected and unloved.

As a child, Alexandra had a longing to travel, but not to see sites and people; she was looking for solitude. She found this to an extent in reading, but also ran away on several occasions. The first was when she was five years old and was found in a nearby forest. At fifteen, she ventured farther afield, walking from Ostend where the family was vacationing, into the Netherlands and crossing over to England. Another time, Alexandra traveled by train to Switzerland and hiked over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps. Both trips were without her parents knowledge and ended when she ran out of money.

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1886 (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1886 (source)

As a young woman, she rejected Catholicism and began to study comparative religions. She attended lectures and discussions at the Theosophical Society in Paris, which is where she probably first encountered Buddhism and became fascinated by Far Eastern cultures. But the place in Paris which made the most dramatic impression on Alexandra was the Musée Guimet, a museum devoted to Asian art. The museum was founded by Émile Étienne Guimet, who was commissioned to study religions of the Far East by the minister of public instruction in France. There in a small reading room, Alexandra found her longed for solitude and as she would say later, her vocation.

In 1890, Alexandra decided to use the money from a small inheritance to travel to India. She traveled by ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then by train all over the Indian sub-continent. On her journey she studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit under Annie Besant, and yoga with Swami Bhaskarananda of Varanasi. She was gone for almost a year and as before, returned home when she was almost out of money.

Louis David had had a reversal of fortune, and Alexandra needed to find a way to support herself. She had always been talented musically and decided to become an opera singer. Beginning in 1896, she toured with several opera companies, including Opéra Comique and L’Opéra d’Athènes, until she took a position as director with Casino de Tunis in 1902. The next year, she changed directions and became a journalist, writing for both English and French magazines.

It was in Tunis where Alexandra met and lived with Philippe-François Néel, a Frenchman who was working in Tunis as a railroad engineer. A friend remembered their relationship as one of affection and mutual respect, but it was definitely out of the ordinary. On August 3, 1904, Alexandra and Philippe were married at the French consulate in Tunis. Five days later, they returned to France and went in different directions.

Later that year in December, Alexandra’s father died. Her trip home and the cold reception from her mother launched her into a period of deep self-analysis and a realization of what her life would be like if she pursued marriage and motherhood. She came to the conclusion that “freedom for her was the most important thing in life,” and she had to create her own life on her own terms.

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1924 at Lhassa, Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1924 at Lhasa, Tibet (source)

Alexandra wrote of her struggles to Philippe. “You are the best husband one could dream of, I acknowledge it without hesitation and it is for that reason I am tormented by a situation that is extremely painful for you.” He accepted her position, at least in time, with good grace, and although they never had a conventional marriage, Philippe never asked for a divorce and continued to support her in many ways until his death 40 years later.

Between her father’s death and 1911, Alexandra began building her life on her terms. She studied, attended lectures, wrote articles, and took short trips, including the occasional visit to see Philippe. She knew she wanted to go back to India and finally felt ready in August of 1911. In her previous travels, especially to Indochina with the opera company, she felt that she belonged in the east.

Once in India, she had a wide range of experiences, from garden parties and lunch with the wives of the Governor of Madras and the British Viceroy, to visiting ashrams and staying with friends in the “native quarter.” She collected information from every source for future articles. In 1912, she decided that she wanted to interview the 13th Dalai Lama. She was the first western woman granted an audience with him and he was so impressed with her knowledge of Buddhist doctrine that he encouraged her to learn the Tibetan language.

In 1910, the Dalai Lama had been granted refuge in Darjeeling in the province of Sikkim, in the Himalayan foothills. While there Alexandra also met Sidkeong Tulka, the Crown Prince of Sikkim and at his invitation traveled to Gangtok, the capital, to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. She eventually took a small apartment in the monastery of Podang outside Gangtok, where she hired a tutor to help her with the language. She took frequent trips on foot and horseback to remote monasteries, traveling with porters for her camping gear and at first Darwasandup, her interpreter, and later Yongden, a boy who would be her traveling companion for the rest of his life.

From 1914 to 1916, Alexandra spent a winter secluded in a cave in the Himalayas and twice crossed the border illegally into Tibet. The first time to visit the Chorten Nyima monastery and the second to visit Tashilhunpo. On her return from the second visit, she was deported from India because of these crossings. By this time, she was determined to visit Lhasa, and now she knew she would have to enter through China.

Aphur Yongden c. 1933 (source)

Aphur Yongden c. 1933 (source)

Alexandra and Yongden left India and traveled through Burma, Japan, and Korea, usually staying at Buddhist monasteries, and arrived in Peking on October 31, 1917. They began their time in China by staying roughly three years at the Kumbum monastery near Lake Koko Nor. It was an unusual privilege for a woman, extended to her because of her age and her association with the Dalai Lama, but it couldn’t last indefinitely. (Yongden was a lama and could have stayed if he chose.)

When they left the monastery, they traveled to various places, even up to the Gobi desert on two occasions. Much of the area, at the time, had not been accurately mapped and knowing their ultimate destination was Lhasa, they took circuitous routes to avoid suspicion. It was dangerous. There were bandits in addition to the usual dangers women face. Alexandra carried a pistol, which she never had to use, although she did fend off an attacker with a small whip on one occasion.

Finally, they reached a small mission, north of Lichiang along the Mekong River from which they intended to approach Tibet. Saying that she was going on a short trip to collect botanicals, she dismissed her porters and took off alone with Yongden. Once away from the others, Alexandra assumed her disguise as a peasant woman. She darkened her hair and extended it with braids of yak hair, darkened her face, and put on a rough robe made of wool. They looked like a peasant woman traveling with her son, a lama journeying to Lhasa.

In the Kha Karpo mountains at Dokar Pass, Alexandra and Yongden crossed the border into Tibet. They still had hundreds of miles to go over uncharted territory. Most of the rivers and mountains they crossed didn’t appear on any map that they knew of, and in many cases had probably never been seen by westerners. The terrain was rough; the Dokar Pass itself is at an elevation over 14,000 feet and the weather at times was brutal. In order to avoid attracting attention, Alexandra only used the white tent she carried in her pack when it could blend in with the snow and help provide camouflage.

The most anticipated and tense moment came at the toll bridge at Giamdo Dzong. From here they would take the China Road to Lhasa, but first they would need a pass. Alexandra believed that the best way to learn about a people and their culture was to live among them. This trip had proven that idea true. Because Yongden was a lama, they were welcomed into the homes of many peasants and she was accepted as his mother. At the toll bridge, the same was true. Yongden went into the checkpoint to request passes, she sat on the doorstep and chanted. No one appeared to give her a second thought.

The same held true when they finally arrived at Lhasa. They arrived in February just in time for the month long celebration of the New Year. Instead of having the way cleared for her by servants as in the past, this time Alexandra was simply one of the thousands of celebrating pilgrims, and she loved it. She watched processions and tested her disguise by going to tea shops, bazaars, and having conversations with people at the inn where she stayed. Finally it was time to try for her ultimate goal, visiting the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama.

Yongden approached two Tibetan villagers and offered to show them the Potala. They gladly accepted the opportunity to have a lama accompany them, and Alexandra humbly walked behind the three men. As at the checkpoint, no one paid her any attention and she was able to feast her eyes on the Palace and the view of Lhasa from the roof. She was satisfied.

Potala Palace at Lhasa (source)

Potala Palace at Lhasa (source)

They had been in Lhasa for two months and Alexandra chose to return home via India. She wanted to make the point that the British government couldn’t prevent her from going to Lhasa. She took the precaution of stopping at Gyantze and having David Macdonald, the British Trade Agent, verify her journey. She had been gone for almost fourteen years.

Alexandra and Yongden returned to Tibet via the Soviet Union in 1937, where they circumambulated the holy mountain Amnye Machen and stayed at Tachienlu (now Kangding), so that Alexandra could read and translate more sacred literature. They returned from their final journey in 1946 and settled in Digne-les-Bains, in southeastern France. There, Yongden died in 1955 at the age of 56. Alexandra continued to study and write until close to her death on September 8, 1969, just one month before her 101st birthday. At her request, Yongden’s ashes were mixed with hers and they were scattered in the Ganges River at Varanasi.

Alexandra wrote over 30 books and numerous articles, including My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City (1927) and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), her most famous work.

Lhasa in 1938, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-07-089 / CC-BY-SA (source)

Lhasa in 1938, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-07-089 / CC-BY-SA (source)

Resources
A Mystic in Tibet – Alexandra David-Néel
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller

 

Sophie Germain: Mathematical Genius Emerging from the French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille, artist unknown (source)

The Storming of the Bastille, artist unknown (source)

Born on April 1, 1776 in Paris, Sophie Germain grew up during a turbulent time. She was 13 years old in 1789 when the Bastille fell and life on the streets became very dangerous. Her parents, Ambroise-Franҫois and Marie-Madeline Germain, were wealthy. Ambroise was a merchant (some sources say silk, some say goldsmith) and elected as a deputy to the Estates-General. Sophie and her sisters would surely have heard intelligent conversation in their home, especially politics and philosophy.

The Germains were able to keep their daughters safe, but it did require remaining indoors most of the time. To keep herself occupied, Sophie turned to her father’s library. It wasn’t long before she ran across the story of the death of Archimedes in a book called The History of Mathematics by Jean-Étienne Montucla. Legend has it that Archimedes was so engrossed in a geometry problem that he didn’t realize Roman soldiers were about to kill him. Sophie thought that geometry must be very fascinating to cause Archimedes to ignore a threat to his life, so she decided to study math. This idea, however, didn’t please her parents.

Sophie Germain (source)

Sophie Germain (source)

Studying math and science wasn’t thought appropriate for women and girls except among the aristocrats. There wasn’t a need for it and some thought it harmful to a girls mind. Her parents did everything they could think of to discourage Sophie. When they forbid her to study these subjects, she appeared to comply, but waited until they went to sleep and studied by candlelight. When they discovered what she was doing, they took away her candles, put out her fire, and took away her clothes after she went to bed, so that she would sleep. She simply kept a stash of hidden candles, wrapped herself in quilts and continued. Even when it was cold enough to freeze the ink in the inkwell, they would find her asleep over her books. Finally, they gave in and let her choose her subjects.

Sophie studied philosophy, classics and math, even learning Latin and Greek to be able to read Newton, Euler and Virgil. She worked through all the math books she found in her father’s library eventually moving on to differential calculus.

The École Polytechnique opened in 1794, when Sophie was 18. Because she was a woman, she couldn’t attend lectures, but she borrowed lecture notes from friends. She also began to submit her work to Joseph Lagrange under the name Monsieur Le Blanc. When Lagrange found out her true identity, he supported her and encouraged her to correspond with other mathematicians.

Historic building of the École Polytechnique by Juan Antonio Cordero (source)

Historic building of the École Polytechnique by Juan Antonio Cordero (source)

Probably the most famous and accomplished mathematician with whom Sophie corresponded was Karl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many to be the “greatest mathematician since antiquity.” Again, she chose to use the name M. Le Blanc and Gauss was impressed with her work in number theory. They corresponded for several years and then Sophie became concerned with Gauss’s safety. He lived in a German town which was soon to be occupied by French troops. Knowing his devotion to mathematics and thinking of Archimedes, she contacted a family friend in the French army and asked him to ensure Gauss’s safety. He did, but Gauss was confused because he didn’t know Sophie Germain by her real name.

Karl Friedrich Gauss c. 1887 by Gottlieb Biermann (source)

Karl Friedrich Gauss c. 1887 by Gottlieb Biermann (source)

The confusion was soon sorted out via correspondence, and much to Sophie’s pleasure and surprise, Gauss was delighted. “How can I describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person. . . when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarising herself with knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.” (emphasis mine)

Sophie contributed significantly to number theory including the foundation 20th century mathematicians would build on in attempting to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, but she also became interested in physics. In 1808, Ernst Chaldni gave a demonstration before the Paris Academy of Sciences on vibrating surfaces. The experimental results were intriguing and caught the attention of Napoléon. He convinced the Academy to run a contest to “give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.” Sophie decided to enter.

One of Sophie’s challenges was her lack of rigor in her mathematics, probably due to her lack of formal education in the field. This was part of the problem that caused the rejection of her submission to the contest in 1811. But Sophie didn’t give up. The contest was extended and Sophie submitted another paper in 1813. This time she was awarded an honorable mention, although there were still problems with her calculations.

Finally, in 1816, Sophie submitted a paper under her own name which won the prize. She was the first woman to win a prize from the Academy, but was still unable to attend its sessions. (The only women admitted were the wives of the members!) However, now she was allowed to attend lectures at the École Polytechnique. Sophie continued her work on elasticity, publishing her results in 1821 and a refined version in 1826.

Although Sophie’s work was always affected by her lack of formal education, she was seen  as ingenious and earned the respect of many of her colleagues. Gauss was sufficiently impressed to recommend to the University of Göttingen that she be awarded an honorary degree. Sadly, she died before this could happen.

In 1829, Sophie learned that she had breast cancer. Although some of her philosophical works were published posthumously, she ironically finished her last mathematical publication to the sounds of the Second French Revolution in the summer of 1830. On June 27, 1831, Sophie Germain died at her home in Paris.

Sophie Germain's headstone, photo by Miek Messerschmidt (source)

Sophie Germain’s headstone, photo by Miek Messerschmidt (source)

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Resources
Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science by The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)
“Sophie Germain” by Mary Gray in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, ed. Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans
Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century : a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 3 – Berthe Morisot

"Berthe Morisot Painting" (1865) by Edma Morisot (source)

“Berthe Morisot Painting” (1865) by her sister Edma Morisot (source)

The Salon de Paris was the official annual exhibition of the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Sponsored by the government (until 1881) and judged by academicians, it was the place to be recognized as an artist in France of the 19th century. As time went on the juries became more conservative, specifically they were not receptive to the artists who came to be called Impressionists. So these artists broke away and held their own exhibitions beginning in 1874. Three of the women, dubbed “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism by Gustave Geffroy, were among these artists: Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot.

Unlike Cassatt and Bracquemond, Berthe Morisot’s artistic aspirations were supported by her family. Her parents were even warned by Joseph Guichard, the artist who gave Berthe and her sisters lessons, “Given your daughters’ natural gifts, it will not be petty drawing-room talents that my instruction will achieve; they will become painters.” Of the three daughters two of them did just that, Edma and Berthe. Although Edma gave up painting after her marriage to a naval officer, Berthe went on to an illustrious career. Edma always supported Berthe’s decision to continue painting, even after her marriage, and they remained close throughout their lives.

Born on January 14, 1841, Berthe was the third child of an affluent bourgeois family. After the daughter’s initial instruction, and in spite of Guichard’s warning, Edma and Berthe followed in the footsteps of other artists and registered as copyists at the Louvre where they met and became friends with other artists. Both are thought to have studied under Camille Carot, who encouraged them to begin painting outdoors (plein air) and under Achile Oudinot, both painters of the Barbizon School. Berthe also briefly studied sculpture as well, but none of her pieces are known to survive.

"The Mother and Sister of the Artist" (1869/70) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“The Mother and Sister of the Artist” (1869/70) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Berthe’s first acceptance in the Salon was in 1864 when she was 23 years old. Edma was also accepted and they both exhibited together until Edma married in 1868. Berthe continued to exhibit regularly at the Salon until 1873, and beginning in 1874 exhibited with the Impressionists. By 1872, her career was firmly established when a private dealer, Druand-Ruel, purchased 22 of her paintings.

"The Cradle" (1872) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“The Cradle” (1872) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Edma wasn’t the only one to fall in love in the 1860s. At some point (sources vary) the sisters became acquainted with Édouard Manet. The families became close with Manet and Morisot influencing each others painting over time. Through Édouard, Berthe met his brother Eugène Manet. They married in 1874 and had one daughter, Julie, born in 1878.

"Eugène Manet à l'Ile de Wight" (1875) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Eugène Manet à l’Ile de Wight” (1875) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Berthe worked in oil, watercolor and pastel and tended to paint domestic life and portraits. She frequently used family and friends as models, including her daughter Julie. Her selection of subjects was somewhat hampered by her gender and social status, although she did eventually paint nudes later in her career. But what was appreciated by many and in fact made her work stand out, were her feminine subjects and style.

"Child Among the Hollyhocks" (1881) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Child Among the Hollyhocks” (1881) by Berthe Morisot (source)

Eugène Manet died in 1892 and Berthe’s own health wasn’t good. She followed him in death on March 2, 1895. Julie was just 15 years old and was left in the care of Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet and critic, and good family friend.

"Reading" (1873) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Reading” (1873) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Only one woman created a style, and that woman is Madame Morisot. Her pictures are the only pictures painted by a woman that could not be destroyed without creating a blank, a hiatus in the history of art.” ~ George Moore

Resources

Berthe Morisot“, The Famous Artists
Edma and Berthe“, Women in the Act of Painting

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 2 – Marie Bracquemond

Marie Bracquemond (source)

Marie Bracquemond (source)

I know little about art with the exception of a passing acquaintance with the Impressionists from taking French in school. Sadly, as in many other areas of my education, it was the male Impressionists we learned about not the women. Although left out of our books, they weren’t absent and today we look at Marie Bracquemond who, with Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, has been called one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism.

Marie Anne Caroline Quivoron was born on December 1, 1840 near Brest in northwestern France. Her father died shortly after her birth and her mother’s second marriage resulted in frequent moves before they finally settled in Étampes, south of Paris. As a girl, she first painted a birthday present for her mother using pigment from crushed flowers. A family friend, impressed by her efforts, gave her a box of watercolors.

Beginning instruction in her teens under M. Wasser, she was accomplished enough by 1857 to have a painting accepted by the Paris Salon. This led to an introduction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and work in his studio. Her exposure there led to commissions for original work as well as making important copies in the Louvre.

"Woman with an Umbrella", 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“Woman with an Umbrella”, 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

She didn’t stay in Ingres’s studio for long, considering him a “despot” with “low esteem of women artists.” In a letter in 1860, she said of M. Ingres: “He wished to impose limits. He would assign to them [women] only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes. . . . I wish to work at painting, not to paint some flowers, but to express those feelings that art inspires in me.”

It was in the Louvre that Marie met Félix Bracquemond. Félix was a prolific printmaker, painter and ceramist. He was prominent in both literary and artistic circles and friends with many Impressionists, although he didn’t share their preference for color over line or working outside the studio. He was also loud, arrogant, and some would say obnoxious. Marie was always properly chaperoned by her mother and sister, Louise, and Félix asked a friend to arrange an introduction.

For two years Marie and Félix were inseparable in the Louvre. They analyzed masterpieces and surely discovered their differing tastes, but Marie found herself submitting to his dominant personality. Their engagement lasted for two years, but finally they married in 1869 in spite of her mother’s opposition. Their only son, Pierre, was born the following year. Always in delicate health, Marie’s health began to decline after the birth.

Their relationship was tempestuous. Félix had no prejudice against women as artists, but according to Pierre, no one, male or female, could change his staunchly held opinions. However, he did teach Marie quite a lot. He introduced her to many other artists as well as new media. Working together at the Haviland studio in Auteuil, Marie designed dinner service plates and created faience tile panels and became very accomplished.

"On the Terrace at Sèvres", 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“On the Terrace at Sèvres”, 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

In the late 1870s, Marie’s style began to change under the mentorship of Monet and Renoir.  This was more than Félix could tolerate. According to Pierre, he only grudgingly allowed her to exhibit a few of her pieces, three in a private gallery in rue Lafitte and five at the Dudley Gallery in London in 1881. A further influence on Marie was Gauguin, who came to stay with the Bracquemonds in 1886 at Félix’s invitation.

Félix became increasingly critical of Marie’s work and called her ambitions “incurable vanity.” She also tired easily trying to work in addition to keeping up her household responsibilities, which she prioritized. Marie always attended Sunday mass, which gave Félix one more thing to criticize.

Weekly gatherings on Sunday at the Bracquemond home frequently ended in arguments. According to Gustave Geffroy, Félix was “both augumentative and authoritarian. He adored debate . . . but his weakness was that he always wanted to be too right, and if anyone disagreed with him ever so little it would end with growing rage.”

"Under the Lamp", 1887, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“Under the Lamp”, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

Marie finally gave up the struggle, painting only a few private works after 1890. One of her last paintings was The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sèvres. Most of what we know about Marie’s life comes from an unpublished memoir written by Pierre, La Vie de Félix et Marie Bracquemond. In it he fails to describe Marie’s last years. Evidently, Félix never stopped railing against the Impressionists, but Marie never stopped loving them.

Marie Bracquemond died in Paris on January 17, 1916. Three years after her death, 156 of her works were assembled for a show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. Only four of those works are now on public display.

"The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sevres", 1890, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sèvres”, 1890, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

Resources

Jean-Paul Bouillon and Elizabeth Kane, “Marie Bracquemond“, Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 5, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984 – Winter, 1985), pp. 21-27

 

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 1 – Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, self-portrait c. 1878 (source)

Mary Cassatt, self-portrait c. 1878 (source)

In 1894 in La Vie artistique, Gustave Geffroy, the art critic, listed three women who had contributed significantly to the history of impressionism: Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot. Bracquemond and Morisot were both French, and although Cassatt was an American, she spent much of her professional life in France eventually making it her permanent home.

Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania to an upper middle-class family on May 22, 1844. Her parents were well-educated and viewed travel as an essential part of education. During her childhood, she spent several years in Europe, visiting all the great cities and learning to speak French and German.

Although her parents were against the idea of making a living through painting, Cassatt began studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She stayed for four years, during the American Civil War, but became dissatisfied with the instruction and treatment of women students, so she also studied the old masters on her own.

Finally, in 1865, Mary’s mother agreed to go with her to Paris for the purpose of studying. The École des Beaux-Arts didn’t accept women, but Jean-Léon Gérôme agreed to teach her privately. She also spent time copying paintings in the Louvre, where she was able to socialize with other artists. In 1868, Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner were the first two American women to have work accepted by the Paris Salon.

Two Women Throwing Flowers, 1872 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Two Women Throwing Flowers, 1872 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Home again in 1870, Cassatt became very frustrated. Her father refused to pay for her art supplies and she was unable to sell paintings that she placed in a New York gallery. She briefly considered giving up painting and looking for another way to make an independent living when she was commissioned by the Archbishop of Pittsburgh to paint copies of two of Correggio’s paintings in Italy. Returning to Europe, and her reception there, was very encouraging, especially after her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was exhibited and purchased at the Paris Salon.

A Woman in Black at the Opera c. 1878 by Mary Cassatt (source)

A Woman in Black at the Opera c. 1878 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Cassatt’s relationship with the jury of the Salon and some of her colleagues became strained, and in 1877, for the first time in seven years both of her entries were rejected. At this point, she was invited by Edgar Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists.

The Boating Party c. 1893 by Mary Cassatt (source)

The Boating Party c. 1893 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Cassatt had always admired Degas and said of his art, “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She enthusiastically joined them and it seemed to set her free. She had always worked inside the studio, but now began to carry a sketch book with her when she went out.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879 by Mary Cassatt (source)

The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 was Cassatt’s most successful to date. Her mother, father and sister Lydia came to join her in Paris and she often painted them, including Woman with a Pearl Necklace of her sister Lydia. She enjoyed a good working relationship with Degas, learning to use pastels and etching from him, but by 1886 Cassatt began to move away from Impressionism and began to experiment with varying techniques.

Mother and Child (Reine Lefebre and Margot) c. 1902 (source)

Mother and Child (Reine Lefebre and Margot) c. 1902 (source)

Cassatt focused primarily on genre painting, often depicting bonds between mothers and their children, although many considered her colors too bright and her figures too accurate to be flattering. After 1900, Cassatt focused primarily on mother and child subjects, which is what she is most well-known for among the general public.

Children Playing with a Cat, 1908 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Children Playing with a Cat, 1908 by Mary Cassatt (source)

Cassatt was always more appreciated in Europe than in America, even among her own family members. In 1915, she exhibited 18 works in support of women’s suffrage. Her sister-in-law, Eugenie Carter Cassatt, along with much of Philadelphia society, boycotted the show. Cassatt responded by selling off the work that she had previously designated for her heirs. She died near Paris on June 14, 1926 and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Théribus, France.