Celebrated for her colorful, intimate portraits, often depicting the modern woman, Mary Cassatt is counted among the greatest Impressionist artists in history.
Art…circumscribed her life and engrossed it, and to separate her life from her art would be impossible. Therefore, they must be considered together as the story of an American woman whose high ambitions overcame her limitations of precedent and sex and the era into which she was born, to drive her on to a place in the foremost ranks of creative art endeavor of her time.
Born in 1844 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt spent time abroad with family in France and Germany during her formative childhood years. She received early artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; however, Cassatt found the courses to be restrictive and uninspiring. Even from a rather young age, she believed that the best way to learn to paint was not in a classroom but by studying the work of Old Masters. And so, in 1866 Cassatt departed home for France, returning to Europe to take private lessons from academic painter Jean-Léon Gerome and to examine the masterpieces at the Musée du Louvre. The artistic culture overseas must have utterly captivated the young artist because she only rarely returned to the United States during the rest of her life. Seemingly insatiable, Cassatt traveled extensively throughout Europe during her first years abroad, copying the works of Caravaggio, Velasquez, Rubens, and Frans Hals (just to name a few).
In 1868, Cassatt exhibited her work at the Paris Salon—a huge honor! Despite this first major success, the artist’s family failed to support her. In fact, her own brother wrote of her accomplishment, “She [Mary] is in high spirits as her picture has been accepted for the annual exhibition in Paris…Mary’s art name is ‘Mary Stevenson’ under which name I suppose she expects to become famous, poor child.” Only four years later in 1876, Cassatt decided that she no longer wished to exhibit at the Paris Salon due to their limiting, “academic” rules.
In 1877, Cassatt was formally invited by Edgar Degas to join the Impressionist group. She delightedly accepted, later explaining, “At last I could work in complete independence, without bothering about the eventual judgement of a jury.” And so began Cassatt’s journey as the only American and one of only four female members of the elite group of artists. She would later exhibit work in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. During her time within the Impressionist circle, she grew particularly close to Degas, who served as her harshest critic, mentor, and friend. Known to be a rather caustic man, it has been suggested that Degas enjoyed Cassatt’s company because his mother was also American, a creole woman from New Orleans, LA.
Cassatt flourished artistically in her adult life during the 1880s and 1890s, creating numerous paintings and pastels depicting thoughtful women in repose and the tender and intimate relationship shared by mother and child—two motifs for which she is best known. While her lively, harmonious color palate is typical of French Impressionism, her technique was ground-breaking. Whereas her contemporaries tended to fracture images with the use of quick, dot-like strokes, Cassatt preferred long, lose strokes which lend her artwork unsurpassed fluidity, confidence, and tranquility.
Like her fellow Impressionist Claude Monet, Cassatt began to lose her eyesight after many years of producing artwork, and by 1910, she was forced to retire her paints and pastels almost entirely. She lived for 12 more years, dying in 1926 at her country home in northern France.
Today, the work of Mary Cassatt hangs in some of the most respected museums in the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Brooklyn Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Art Institute of Chicago. Her legacy is that of a revolutionary American artist and creator of beautiful images, particularly depicting female figures as attractive, although not idealized, strong individuals worthy of admiration and respect.