Who Was Mary Cassatt?

Mary Cassatt, one of the leading artists in the Impressionist movement - moved to Paris, her home for the rest of her life, she was befriended by Edgar Degas. After 1910, her increasingly poor eyesight virtually put an end to her serious painting, and she died in 1926.

Mary Cassatt's Early Years

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. Cassatt was the daughter of a well-to-do real estate and investment broker. Her upbringing allowed her to become a proper wife and mother and included such classes as homemaking, embroidery, music, sketching and painting. During the 1850s, the Cassatts took their children abroad until World War I.

Mary Cassatt's Early Training

Though women were discouraged from pursuing a career at the time, Mary Cassatt enrolled in the program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age 16. It wasn't surprising that she found the male faculty and her fellow students to be patronizing and resentful of her attendance. She was 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, firsthand.
Cassatt, a successful Impressionist painter, was a woman ahead of her time. Despite her family's strong objections (her father declared he would rather see his daughter dead than living abroad as a "bohemian"), 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.

Mary Cassatt's early work

In 1870, Mary Cassatt reluctantly returned home to live with her parents. The artistic freedom she enjoyed while living abroad was immediately extinguished upon her return. 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, they were tragically destroyed in a fire in 1871.
In the midst of these obstacles, Mary Cassatt accepted a commission from the archbishop of Pittsburgh. He wanted her to paint copies of two works by the Italian master Correggio. Cassatt 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 Mary Cassatt's paintings for exhibitions in 1872, 1873 and 1874, which helped secure her status as an established artist. She continued to study and paint in other countries, eventually settling permanently in Paris.

Mary Cassatt's unique artistic expression

Though she felt indebted to the Salon for building her career, Cassatt began to feel increasingly constrained by its inflexible guidelines. She was no longer concerned with what was fashionable or commercial, and began experimenting artistically. Her new work drew criticism for its bright colors, unconventional composition, and unflattering accuracy of its subjects. During this time, she drew courage from Degas’ pastels, which inspired her to press on in her own direction. In 1878, Mary Cassatt began a close friendship with Tissot. In 1889 she acquired his studio and the works inside. Her interest in his work increased her interest in him and she said of Tissot, "I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art."
Mary Cassatt was an American painter known for her works of mothers and children. Her admiration for Degas would soon blossom into a strong friendship, and she 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 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, Cassatt was able to resume painting.
While many were focused on landscapes and street scenes, Mary Cassatt was renowned 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. In American Artist, Gemma Newman noted that "her constant objective was to achieve force, not sweetness; truth, not sentimentality or romance."
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, including study of Japanese printmaking that resulted in the colored prints exhibited in 1891.

Mary Cassatt's Artistic Activism

Mary Cassatt commissioned the construction of a new studio for female painters after moving to Paris. Cassatt was friends with artists Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin. He also sponsored fellow Impressionists and encouraged wealthy Americans to support the fledgling movement by purchasing artwork. She became an advisor to several major collectors, with the stipulation that their purchases would eventually be passed on to American art museums.
No one who saw Mary Cassatt's work during her lifetime thought she was a painter's painter. She was not part of any movement, nor did she have an individual style. Her work didn't attract much attention until long after her death. So how does an artist whose work was so far from the mainstream nevertheless become one of the most popular artists in American history? And why are her paintings now worth millions? The answer is that she was a political artist. Her art was not overtly political, but it reflected her personal politics. The Activist is about how those politics shaped her work and helped make it influential.

Mary Cassatt's later years & death

Mary Cassatt returned to the United States in 1907. She spent her last years in Pittsburgh, and died in 1926, at age 78. A few months before her death, Cassatt left $5,000 in her will to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and $500 to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society for Animals. More than thirty-five works by Mary Cassatt remain in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. Mary Cassatt's papers were donated to The Archives of American Art in 1951 by her son Alexander Chapman Ritchie and his wife Katherine S. Mulligan Ritchie. They consist of approximately 1,000 items: letters written to Cassatt from her family members and friends; exhibition catalogues; newspaper clippings; photographs; scrapbooks; diaries; financial records; catalogues raisonnés of Cassatt's works; and other materials which document Mary Cassatt's career as an artist, particularly her work with Impressionism and The Eight.

Oil painting reproduction of Mary Cassatt