MARY CASSATT: A Life by Nancy Mowll Mathews (Villard: $28; 383 pp.) She was a master of the tender touch; in her paintings of mothers and children the hand on the cheek or the tiny arms around the neck or the kiss on the shoulder are serene and voluptuous. It is this touch that one author, writing in the journal Camera Work in the early 1900s, said "endows all her figures with the energy of life." In 1866, at age 21, Cassatt fled her well-bred and well-heeled Pennsylvania family to paint and study painting in Paris. A stipend from her parents only enhanced her determination to focus on painting exclusively, to travel to the French countryside, to paint what she wanted (peasants and local people), to reject fashionable trends in painting (including her initial rejection of Impressionism), and to sneer at the tyranny of the Paris Salon. After some success and some rejection, and a brief interval of trying to live again in Pennsylvania, Cassatt returned to Europe, this time to Italy, where her career and her reputation were established. The goal of the artist, she wrote, is to "exhibit and sell, to achieve fame and fortune."
Cassatt did not not marry; indeed, it appears from this biography that the closest she came to a lasting romantic relationship was the influence Degas had on her painting. She did not have children but spent a great deal of time with her brothers' children (much of it painting them). We are left still curious about this part of Cassatt's life, but in the end Mathews leaves us with a clear understanding of Cassatt's evolution as a painter, of her independence and determination. The paintings leave little doubt that she experienced the joys of motherhood.