Mary Cassatt sat on the window seat in her bedroom, wrapped in a blanket against the predawn chill. The countryside lay below in silvery inkiness; the sky just above the horizon beginning the transition from black to pewter. Her cheek rested against the cold glass as she thought about her childhood in Europe. The family lived in Paris for two years and in Germany for another two. The children attended local schools and she remembered the wonderful whirl Europe was then, a magical place of beauty and art. But when her older brother Robbie died the magic faded and they all returned home, pieces of their hearts left behind in a foreign cemetery.
Mary still yearned for the continent 10 years later, remembering the music in the grand opera houses, the ballet and theater and above all, the great museums. It seemed like a dream - those gilded and mirrored salons that glittered in candlelight as elegantly dressed people danced and chatted at the soirees given by her parents. She smiled at the thought of how her sister Lydia, her brothers Aleck and Robbie used to slip out of bed and watch those parties from the upstairs landing.
Mary sighed and watched the Pennsulvania sky turn from pewter to lavender. She rose and dressed for the horseback ride she and her father planned to take that morning. Now that the war was over, she thought, shipping should soon return to normal and it was the perfect time to approach her father about Paris and studying art there. It would be difficult to convince him to let her go, but convince him she must. Mary mused about the best way to convince him that an upper middle class life spent as a Sunday dilettante was not what she wanted. Her soul would shrivel and her creativity would die if she lived the life they expected of her.
After breakfast Mary and her father, Robert, walked from the house toward the stables. The sun was a blinding glow on the eastern horizon. The paddock grass, dewy in the spring morning, sparkled chartreuse in the light. Their steps crunched on the gravel path and they heard the expectant whinnies coming from the stables. Tackle clattered against the wooden walls as their groom prepared the horses.
“Morning, Mr. Cassatt, Miss Mary,” the groom called out. ”They‘re ready and waitin’ fer you.” The Cassatts were fortunate to still have their beloved animals. Their horses were not appropriated by the Union Army only because of Robert Cassatt's wealth and influence. But the bloody trial of the Civil War was over and the Cassatts were all safe, thanks to having enough money for the men to buy their way out of service.
It was two years since Mary graduated from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as one of the few women to be admitted to the higher educational enclave. She pondered the strategy she used at age 16 to gain her parents’ permission to attend that school and wondered if it would work again to gain permission to go to Paris. She learned as a child that the best way to get what she wanted was not to ask, but to state and restate her case until they gave in. Eventually, every stone surrenders to the slow drip of water.
Ever since graduation she painted at home, using local models and visiting Philadelphia museums.She was a tall and athletic woman who took well to the country life, but she was restless. Local social events and the silly young women who frequented them bored her to the point of discomfort. The Academy was clearly inadequate for her talent and like the new spring growth that surrounded her, she was on the brink of exciting change and growth.
Mary's horse was a well curried roan mare and she slid her arm under the horse’s head. Mary brought out a small carrot from a pocket and patted the animal’s cheek as it ground the treat between yellow molars.
“And how is my sweetie this morning? Are you ready for a bit of exercise?” Mary cooed. She mounted a sidesaddle and breathed in the crisp spring air. Her back was straight and determined, her face plainly sensible. Her eyes seemed to easily pierce through the veneer of anyone who caught her gaze.
Her father’s saddle creaked as he mounted his black gelding, “Thanks," he said to the groom. "Should be gone about an hour, I guess.” People listened when Robert Cassatt spoke. With a Revolutionary War heritage, an unassuming wealth gained from generations of Yankee thrift and hard work, Robert Cassatt’s family moved easily in the worlds of old money and comfortable, landed gentry. They rode toward the cherry orchard and their horses pranced and snorted as father and daughter chatted on the lane toward the layer of pink that blanketed the valley floor below.
“Papa, do you remember when we were in Paris?” Mary asked. “We had a wonderful time then, at least until we lost Robbie.”
“I remember it was cold and damp in the winter and hot and muggy in the summer.”
“I remember how long the days were in summer. It wasn’t really dark until 10 o’clock. And remember the Louvre! It took us days to see it all. Although, I’m still convinced there’s parts we missed.”
Robert Cassatt chuckled, “It was amazing, the maid always wanted to give you children wine at dinner instead of milk. Must say though, once you got used to it, the food there really was quite extraordinary. And we attended some excellent concerts too. Your mother loved the music. We just don’t have orchestras here that come close to what they have in Europe,”
“The Europeans have tradtitionall provide the best training in all the arts,” Mary replied. “They support all creativity, much more than America does.”
“We Yankees must seem like a bunch of country bumpkins to them. But the Cassatts had an advantage. Your mother’s fluency in French helped us a lot in Paris,” Robert said. He frowned then halted his horse. Just ahead, coming around a bend in the road was a group of three men walking toward them. “Mary, stop. Stay close behind me,” he said to his daughter.
One man limped badly and they were all filthy, with torn blue uniforms. Robert reined his gelding between Mary’s mare and the men. All three carried rifles and backpacks. One of the men stepped forward, standing close to the horse’s neck.
“Please, sir. We mean no harm. It's two days we been walking. Trying to get home.” His eyes were a startling, piercing blue that punctuated a gaunt, sun-darkened face. His beard was scraggly and matted with dirt. When he scratched his chin, Robert saw small white specks moving around in the black whiskers. “All we ask is for some food and water, then we’ll be on our way,” the man said. "Thank the good Lord, my brothers and I survived some fierce fighting.”
“Where are you from?” Robert still wasn’t sure about these men. Their rifles made him nervous. One needed to be very careful in such uncertain times. In the future, he would bring a pistol on their rides.
“I own a small farm a ways from Philadelphia, sir. It’s a few miles outside of Bethlehem. Please, sir all we ask is a little food and water, and we’ll be on our way. I have a wife and two small children waiting for us at home.”
“There’s a church a couple of miles down this road. The pastor there is Rev. Miller. You can tell him that Robert Cassatt sent you. He will give you what you need. You can’t miss it. Red brick with a tall white spire. The rectory is in the rear.” Robert had no intention of allowing these poor souls anywhere near his home and family.
“Robert Ca-sat. Yes sir. God bless you. I will mention your name to Rev. Miller,” he said as he tipped his cap. Robert nodded and kept his horse between the men and Mary as they resumed their slow trudge along the rutted road.
“Papa,” Mary said, but her father raised his hand while he watched the men walk down the road. After several minutes, the bedraggled group disappeared around a curve and Robert nodded to his daughter.
“Let’s give the horses a little run,” he said as he urged his gelding on. Over a field father and daughter cantered, Mary’s skirts billowing and flowing along her mare’s side. Both animals cleared a low hedge easily as the canter turned to a gallop and they raced to reach the orchard.
“Ha! I beat you again Papa,” Mary said.
“Its not a fair race. Both poor Agamemnon here and I are getting too old to keep up with you youngsters,” Robert laughed.
“Not so much a youngster anymore Papa, I’m 21 now.”
“And quite an accomplished 21, I must say,” her father was proud of her achievements. "Some of the portraits you've done recently are quite good. I guess your time at the Academy wasn't wasted."
“Well, I still have much more to learn. Certainly, I’m nowhere nearly as accomplished as some of the artists we saw in Europe,” Mary said.
“You out shine any other lady artists around here. There’s none who can compete with you.”
“I know that God blessed me with talent and a family with more than comfortable means. There is no reason why I can’t learn even more. Just as there’s no reason why some of my paintings can’t some day hang in museums like the ones we saw in Europe.”
“Enough of that, Mary. Some day you will marry and have a family. You will be too preoccupied then to worry about competing with men to get into museums.”
It was not the time to tell her father that she had no intention of ever tying herself down with marriage and children. Better to focus on getting him to support her studies in Europe. “Well, until that happens, I still want to learn more. I have plenty of time before getting married.”
“Where are you proposing to get this further training?” he asked.
“The Philadelphia Academy is the best place in this country for training women, but its still lacking. Paris is the center of the art world. Europe is the only place to go. Eliza Haldeman is talking to her parents about studying in Europe also,” Mary said as she leaned down to rub the mare’s neck. Eliza was her best friend from the Academy. “Now that the war is over, passage to Europe should become available soon.”
“Surely you aren’t saying you and Eliza want to go to Europe alone?” her father asked.
“Only for a couple of years. I can learn just by copying masters in the Louvre. Plus, there are many famous artists who hold classes in their own studios for promising students.”
“Its simply too dangerous for an un-chaperoned young lady to travel and study alone. Even if nothing happened, your reputation would be ruined. Not to mention the reputation of the whole family, including your sister Lydia’s. You would never be able to find a suitable husband if something inappropriate happened.” Her father’s face was red and his voice rose. “Dirt rubs off on everything it touches, you know!” He swallowed hard and jerked up the head of his grazing horse. “It would be almost better if you were dead rather than living the life of a bohemian in Paris!” Robert Cassatt felt panic at the thought of losing his favorite but independent and willful child. Many sleepless nights of worry lay ahead of him, he knew.
“But I don’t have to go un-chaperoned, Papa. And you know me well enough that I’m not going to live the life of a bohemian. You have raised me too well for that! I know Mother would love to go to Europe again with me. She could stay there long enough to make certain I am settled in a safe, acceptable situation. Eliza and I can live and study together, chaperoning each other. That should keep the gossips quiet.” Mary watched her father as the muscles in his jaw worked. His eyes shifted to the surrounding countryside.
Robert worried about Mary. Their family for generations made socially advantageous marriages and he feared Mary would miss out and end up living the tragic existence of an old maid. Lydia was showing signs of chronic ill health and might not be able to bear children. Out of the seven children born to his wife Katherine, four were buried. If Mary persisted in this crazy notion, it might come down to his only remaining son, Aleck to carry on the family heritage. Mary had no idea of the perils that lay in wait for naïve young women living far away from home, unprotected by family.
“Mary, it's out of the question. It’s too dangerous.”
Mary's back stiffened and her bulbous gray eyes narrowed. She looked toward row after row of the slender, dark-trunked cherry trees which lay before them. Delicate black branches supported brilliant pink crowns that glowed in the morning sunshine. The dark earth was tilleded in long furrows running the length of the rows, damp and rich.
“Papa, I’m not going to waste what God has given me.” Mary jerked on the mare’s reins, pulling up the animal’s head. She thought about her next move in the war to overcome her father’s objections. Just like when she was sixteen, she would keep on, like a slow drip on a hard rock.
In silence they rode down one of the rows in the orchard and the pink surrounded them, like the soft quiet of an enveloping baby’s blanket. Mary gave a little jab with her heel into the mare’s side and began a gentle canter along the furrows, keeping her head low against the horse’s neck. Robert sat still in his saddle, watching her as a shower of brilliant blossoms cascaded down in her wake.