By Phil Hall | August 24, 2003

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was one of the most important figures in the development of American culture. As the sole American in the forefront of the Impressionist movement, she gained an international reputation long before the rest of the world considered Americans worthy of cultural appreciation. Her influence helped to shape American appreciation of classic and modern art, and her ability to achieve commercial success inspired generations of women to follow their dreams of a career in the arts.
Jackson Frost’s excellent documentary “Mary Cassatt: A Brush With Independence” captures the life and times of this remarkable woman. Tapping into rare correspondence and photographs and presenting a marvelous gallery of Cassatt’s work, all brilliantly captured in superb HD videography, the film is a superb tribute to Cassatt’s legacy and it also raises the standard of biographical documentary.
Cassatt had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family, which encouraged her independent spirit and financed her efforts to make a career as a painter. Stifled by the limitations of American culture during the post-Civil War period, Cassatt expatriated herself to Europe in search of her artistic identity. Usually chaperoned by her mother but frequently traveling by herself, Cassatt devoted her life to absorbing the finest of Europe’s artistic output while finding her own distinct vision and style.
Cassatt was not the first female artist, by any stretch of the imagination, but her force of personality and talent brought her a level of attention, which other women never achieved. Her friendship with Edgar Degas ushered her into the Impressionist movement, where her subtle command of colors paid tribute to a subject which was virtually unconsidered in painting at that time: the tender bond between mothers and children. Cassatt’s painting avoided sentimentality in her work; the children and adults of her paintings were clearly intelligent and mature, and the love which she captured on canvas was one of both emotion and mind. This was fairly radical for its time, given the Victorian-era disposition to children, and Cassatt went further in openly stating her feminist politics by creating many portraits that featured women reading newspapers or books. Men were either absent or subordinate subjects in her paintings.
Through her well-cultivated connections, Cassatt built her reputation on both sides of the Atlantic and encouraged wealthy Americans to build up their art collections of Impressionist works, thus bringing modern art across the Atlantic. Her pursuit of a career effectively canceled consideration of becoming a wife and mother herself, though her close-knit family (many of whom expatriated themselves to be with her in France) kept her out of an emotional vacuum.
“Mary Cassatt: A Brush With Independence” presents the artist’s output with bold yet graceful style. The camera slowly absorbs her celebrated paintings one at a time, allowing the viewer to observe the serenity and quite genius which Cassatt created. Rarely has HD videography been used so effectively as here, with the details of the brushstrokes and hue-play brought alive with such magnificent detail one can feel being up-close in a gallery. For example, the white-green-purple striped dress worn by the mother in “The Child’s Bath” is so crisp and clear in this film that one cannot help but feel dumbstruck at the brilliance which Cassatt displayed in bringing this difficult color combination (complete with creases and rolled sleeves) to Impressionist life.
Coupled with the visual splendor of the film is a firm narration by Anne Archer, which richly details Cassatt’s vibrancy and frequently imperious behavior. Whether supervising the production of her Japanese wood block-inspired prints or berating Matisse for this “Water Lilies” or complaining against the corrupt male leadership that brought World War I to Europe, Cassatt was the proverbial tough broad and the film wisely acknowledges her strong personality with respect without pretending that she was without abrasive edges.
Anyone who is enchanted by fine art will find “Mary Cassatt: A Brush With Independence” worth revisiting many times over. Not unlike a celebrated museum exhibition, “Mary Cassatt: A Brush With Independence” is a work of art unto itself.
You can find oodles of great illustrations for this title at the Mary Cassatt Art Website.

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