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Mary Cassatt: An Iconic American Impressionist

A look into the life of Mary Cassatt, the feminist Impressionist who carved out her own path as a painter.

The Boating Party by Mary Cassatt, 1893-94
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The Boating Party by Mary Cassatt, 1893-94

 

Mary Cassatt was born into a life that she did not feel suited to. Despite being raised and expected to be a wife and mother, she forged out her own life as an independent artist. She traveled through Europe and then moved to Paris, earning her place in the Impressionist group. She received critical acclaim for her incorporation of different artistic influences, bright colors and unique subject matter. Today, she is known as one of the most prominent Impressionist painters and a positive role model for women. Here are 11 facts about her life and career. 

 

Mary Cassatt Was Born Into An Affluent Family

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt, 1886, NGA
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Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt, 1886, NGA

Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania to Robert Simpson Cassatt and Katherine Johnson. Her father was a very successful investment and estate stockbroker, and her mother was from a large banking family. She was brought up and taught to be a well-to-do wife and mother, learning embroidery, sketching, music and homemaking. She was also encouraged to travel and learn many languages and lived abroad for several years. Her family did not, however, encourage Cassatt’s career as an artist. 

 

An Independent, Self-Made Education

Even though her parents objected, Cassatt enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when she was 15 years old. However, she was bored by the tedious pace of the courses and found the attitudes of the male students and teachers towards her condescending. She was not allowed the same privileges as the male students; she was not permitted to use live models as subjects and was thus confined to drawing still lifes from inanimate objects. 

 

The Loge Painting by Mary Cassatt
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The Loge by Mary Cassatt, 1882


Cassatt decided to leave the course and travel to Paris to study art independently. She learned about the Old Masters of the
European Renaissance, spending many days copying masterpieces in the Louvre. She also took private lessons from the instructors at the École des Beaux-Arts, as women were technically not allowed to enroll.

 

Study With Jean-Léon Gêrôme And Other Famous Artists In Paris

One of the private tutors she studied under in Paris was Jean-Léon Gêrôme, a well-known instructor regarded for the eastern influences in his art and his hyper-realistic style. Classic elements of this style included rich patterns and bold colors as well as intimate spaces. Cassatt also studied with French landscape painter Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture, a French history painter who also taught artists such as Édouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour and J. N. Sylvestre. 

 

Girl Arranging Her Hair by Mary Cassatt, 1886
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Girl Arranging Her Hair by Mary Cassatt, 1886

 

Financing Her Own Career

During Cassatt’s brief return to the United States in the 1870s, she lived with her family in Altoona, Pennsylvania. While her basic needs were taken care of by her family, her father, still resistant to her chosen career, refused to provide her with any art supplies. She tried to sell paintings at galleries to earn money but to no avail. She then traveled to Chicago to try her hand at selling her art there, but unfortunately lost some pieces in the Great Chicago fire of 1871.  Finally, her work caught the eye of the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, who invited her to Parma for a commission of two Correggio copies. This earned her enough money to travel to Europe and continue working as an independent artist. 

 

Exhibiting At The Paris Salon

The Mandolin Player by Mary Cassatt, 1868
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The Mandolin Player by Mary Cassatt, 1868

In 1868, one of Cassatt’s pieces entitled A Mandolin Player was accepted for exhibition by the Paris Salon. This made her one of the first two women artists to have their work exhibited at the Salon, the other artist being Elizabeth Jane Gardner. This helped establish Cassatt as a forerunning painter in France and she continued to submit work to the Salon for several years. However, despite her appreciation for the Salon’s publicity, Cassatt felt restricted by its strict guidelines. She began to experiment with more vibrant colors and outside influences. 

 

Her Friendship With Edgar Degas And Other Impressionists

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt, 1878
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Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt, 1878

Despite their early mutual appreciation for each other’s work, Cassatt and fellow Impressionist painter Edgar Degas did not meet until 1877. After a rejection of a submission at the Paris Salon, Cassatt was invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists, who were drawn together by the similarity of their techniques. This included the application of bold colors and distinct strokes, leading to an ‘impressionistic’ rather than hyper-realistic product. She accepted the invitation, becoming a member of the Impressionist group and establishing relationships with artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

Degas proved a very important artistic influence on Cassatt, teaching her about the use of pastels and copper engraving. He passed on many of his artistic techniques to her, even though Cassatt was a successful artist in her own right. The two worked together for nearly 40 years, exchanging ideas and with Cassatt sometimes posing for Degas.

 

Cassatt Was The Only American To Be Exhibited With The French Impressionists

Children Playing on the Beach by Mary Cassatt, 1884
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Children Playing on the Beach by Mary Cassatt, 1884

 

The 1879 Impressionist exhibition in Paris proved to be the most successful to date. Cassatt exhibited 11 pieces alongside other famous artists including Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Marie Bracquemond. While the event faced harsh criticism, Cassatt and Degas came through relatively unscathed compared to the other exhibiting artists. The exhibition yielded a profit for each artist, which was a previously unprecedented result. Cassatt used her payment to purchase one work each by Monet and Degas. She continued to exhibit with the Impressionists afterward, remaining an active member of the group until 1886. After this, she assisted with the launch of the first United States Impressionist exhibition.

 

Inspiration In Japanese Printmaking

The Coiffure by Mary Cassatt, 1890-91, wiki
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The Coiffure by Mary Cassatt, 1890-91, wiki

 

Cassatt, along with other Impressionist painters, took inspiration from the Japanese Ukiyo-e, or everyday life, style of painting. She was first introduced to the style when an exhibition featuring the Japanese masters came to Paris in 1890. She was enamored by the straightforward simplicity of line etching and bright, block colors in Japanese printmaking, and was one of the first artists to reproduce them in the impressionist style. The most prominent examples of her work in this style are The Coiffure (1890-91) and Woman Bathing (1890-91). 

 

Mothers And Their Children Were Her Favorite Subjects

Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) by Mary Cassatt, 1899
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Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) by Mary Cassatt, 1899

 

Although she experimented with different subjects, Cassatt’s best-known works depicted domestic scenes, often featuring children and their mothers. These depictions primarily of the private sphere differed from that of her male contemporaries; the women in her art were not shown in relation to the men in their lives. These pieces not only elucidated but celebrated and paid tribute to a woman’s expected role during Cassatt’s lifetime. While it was not an experience Cassatt desired for herself (she never married), she nonetheless recognized and commemorated it in her artwork. 

 

Cassatt Retires Early Due To Her Health

After a trip to Egypt in 1910, Cassatt was overwhelmed by the beauty she had seen but found herself exhausted and in a creative slump. Then in 1911, she was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, cataracts and neuralgia. She continued to paint as much as she could after her diagnosis but was forced to stop in 1914 as she was nearly blind. For the last years of her life, she lived in almost complete blindness and was never able to paint again. 

 

Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt, 1900
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Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt, 1900

 

She Supported Women’s Rights After She Could No Longer Paint

Throughout her life and career, Cassatt objected to being a ‘woman artist’ rather than just an artist. As a woman, she had been excluded from coursework, certain subject matters, university degrees, and even meeting with the Impressionist group in certain public capacities. She wanted the same rights as her male contemporaries and fought against any obstacles standing in her way. Despite losing her vision and ability to paint in her later years, she continued to fight for the rights of other women. She did so with her artwork, contributing 18 paintings to an exhibition put on by her friend Louisine Havemeyer to support the women’s suffrage movement. 

 

Auctioned Paintings by Mary Cassatt

Children Playing with a Dog by Mary Cassatt, 1907
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Children Playing with a Dog by Mary Cassatt, 1907

Children Playing with a Dog by Mary Cassatt, 1907

Auction House: Christie’s, New York 

Price Realized: 4,812,500 USD

Sold in 2007

 

Sara Holding a Cat by Mary Cassatt, 1907-08
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Sara Holding a Cat by Mary Cassatt, 1907-08

Auction House: Christie’s, New York

Prize Realized: 2,546,500 USD

Sold in 2000

 

A Goodnight Hug by Mary Cassatt, 1880
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A Goodnight Hug by Mary Cassatt, 1880

Auction House: Sotheby’s, New York

Price Realized: 4,518,200 USD

Sold in 2018

 


Charlotte Davis
About the Author

Charlotte Davis

I’m Charlotte Davis, a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.


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