Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14,
1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Pennsylvania,
but lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar
Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt often created
images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on
the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
She was described by Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of "les trois grandes dames"
of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot.
Study of Art
Though women of her day were discouraged from pursuing a career, Mary Cassatt
enrolled in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at age 16. Not
surprisingly, she found the male faculty and her fellow students to be patronizing
and resentful of her attendance. Cassatt also became frustrated by the curriculum's
slow pace and inadequate course offerings. She decided to leave the program and
move to Europe where she could study the works of the Old Masters on her own,
Despite her family's strong objections (her father declared he would rather see
his daughter dead than living abroad as a "bohemian"), Mary Cassatt left for Paris
in 1866. She began her study with private art lessons in the Louvre, where she
would study and copy masterpieces. She continued to study and paint in relative
obscurity until 1868, when one of her portraits was selected at the prestigious
Paris Salon, an annual exhibition run by the French government. With her father's
disapproving words echoing in her ears, Cassatt submitted the well-received
painting under the name Mary Stevenson.
Growing Artistic Reputation
In 1870, soon after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Mary Cassatt
reluctantly returned home to live with her parents. The artistic freedom she
enjoyed while living abroad was immediately extinguished upon her return to the
outskirts of Philadelphia. Not only did she have trouble finding proper supplies,
but her father refused to pay for anything connected with her art. To raise funds,
she tried to sell some of her paintings in New York, but to no avail. When she
tried again to sell them through a dealer in Chicago, the paintings were tragically
destroyed in a fire in 1871.
In the midst of these obstacles, Cassatt was contacted by the archbishop of
Pittsburgh. He wanted to commission the artist to paint copies of two works by the
Italian master Correggio. Cassatt accepted the assignment and left immediately for
Europe, where the originals were on display in Parma, Italy. With the money she
earned from the commission, she was able to resume her career in Europe. The Paris
Salon accepted her paintings for exhibitions in 1872, 1873 and 1874, which helped
secure her status as an established artist. She continued to study and paint in
Spain, Belgium and Rome, eventually settling permanently in Paris.
Unique Artistic Expression
Though she felt indebted to the Salon for building her career, Mary Cassatt
began to feel increasingly constrained by its inflexible guidelines. No longer
concerned with what was fashionable or commercial, she began to experiment
artistically. Her new work drew criticism for its bright colors and unflattering
accuracy of its subjects. During this time, she drew courage from painter Edgar
Degas, whose pastels inspired her to press on in her own direction. "I used to go
and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art," she
once wrote to a friend. "It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see
Her admiration for Degas would soon blossom into a strong friendship, and Mary
Cassatt exhibited 11 of her paintings with the Impressionists in 1879. The show was
a huge success both commercially and critically, and similar exhibits were staged
in 1880 and 1881. Shortly thereafter marked a dormant period for Mary Cassatt, who
was forced to withdraw from the art world to care for her ill mother and sister.
Her sister died in 1882, but after her mother regained her health, Mary was able to
While many of her fellow Impressionists were focused on landscapes and street
scenes, Mary Cassatt became famous for her portraits. She was especially drawn to
women in everyday domestic settings, especially mothers with their children. But
unlike the Madonnas and cherubs of the Renaissance, Cassatt's portraits were
unconventional in their direct and honest nature. Commenting in American Artist,
Gemma Newman noted that "her constant objective was to achieve force, not
sweetness; truth, not sentimentality or romance."
Mary Cassatt's painting style continued to evolve away from Impressionism in
favor of a simpler, more straightforward approach. Her final exhibition with the
Impressionists was in 1886, and she subsequently stopped identifying herself with a
particular movement or school. Her experimentation with a variety of techniques
often led her to unexpected places. For example, drawing inspiration from Japanese
master printmakers, she exhibited a series of colored prints, including Woman
Bathing and The Coiffure, in 1891.