Mary Cassatt 1844-1926

Mary Cassatt, perhaps the most well known of the French Impressionist women painters, was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, on May 22, 1844. At seventeen, she was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)--four years later, she decided to leave for Paris and to be tutored by Jean-Louis Gerome, a well known artist. Three years later, in 1868, Cassatt's The Mandolin Player was accepted into the Paris Salon. She studied Old Masters in different parts of Europe: Correggio in Italy, Murillo in Spain, Rubens in Antwerp--even though, as a woman, she was not allowed to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Cassatt continued exhibiting at the Paris Salon until the late 1870s. In 1877 she was invited by Degas--who had been impressed by Ida, which she had exhibited earlier--to join the the Independents or Impressionist group. Although this show fell through, Cassatt, undaunted, showed Head of a Woman at the Paris Exposition Universelle. By the following year, however, she exhibited 11 works at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition and continued to show with them quite consistently--despite some political squabbles among the group--until their last exhibit in 1886.

Cassatt and Degas were friends and colleagues, although Cassatt often found Degas too ascerbic. It is interesting that the painting Girl Arranging Her Hair found in Degas' studio after his death, was thought to be his, but was then claimed to be Cassatt's work.

Although Cassatt is primarily known for her paintings of mother and child, she primarily captured life of modern Parisians in nineteenth century society--particularly those of women in both private and public spaces. She worked in oil and pastels and in the 1890s became interested in Japanese prints.

Cassatt was acquainted with Morisot, as a friend and as an artist--although occasionnally they were rivals. The four women now considered Women Impressionists (Braquemond, Cassatt, Gonzales, and Morisot) did not see themselves as gender-based artists, and they tended to bond more closely with male artists, such as Degas for Cassatt and Manet for Morisot. Cassatt was perhaps the most politicized of the four, and established ties with other women artists, outside the Impressionist movement. Cassatt remained single throughout her life, and, being wealthy and independent was able to build a successful career as an artist during her lifetime.

Cassatt had four solo exhibitions--Durand-Ruel becoming her exclusive dealer--and was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1904. Cassatt's work shows an evolution from a close study of Old Masters to a freer style vanguarded by the Impressionists--with boldness in a very personal choice of theme:primarily women and children.

Cassatt's contribution to French Impressionism is seen not only in her artwork, but in her ability to influence the acceptance of Impressionism in America. She did so by being a key advisor to Louisine Havermeyer, who amassed quite a collection of Impressionist paintings in the U.S., and by showing her own work in Pennsylvania and New York.

Cassatt died on June 14, 1926 in her house at Beaufresne, France.

Works by Mary Cassatt featured on this website:


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