Mary Cassatt was a great painter of the Impressionist Era. Bornon May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Mary Stevenson Cassattdefied the social conventions of her day to become one of America’sforemost artists. Growing up in Philadelphia, she was the fifth child ofKatherine Kelso Johnston and Robert Simpson Cassatt, a well-to-do realestate and investment broker. Her upbringing was fairly typical for the eraand her social class; at school, she prepared for life as a wife andmother, which included lessons in how to run a home as well as in suchgenteel pastimes as embroidery, music, sketching, and painting. To broadentheir children’s education, the Cassatts took them to live in Europe forseveral years during the early 1850s.
In 1860, sixteen-year-old Mary enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academyof the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Despite the fact that women, especiallythose of the upper-class, were discouraged from pursuing careers, shewanted to be a professional artist. By 1862, however, she had grownfrustrated with the program’s slow pace and inadequate course offerings.
She also resented the patronizing attitude of the male teachers and most ofher fellow students. She concluded that the best way for her to learn aboutart would be to go to Europe and study the works of the old masters on herown.
Overcoming the strong objections of her family (her father oncedeclared he would rather see his daughter dead than living abroad as a”bohemian”), Cassatt left for Paris in 1866 to take private art lessons andcopy masterpieces in the Louvre. Over the next few years, she traveledthroughout France and stayed briefly in Rome.
Her first break came in 1868, when one of her portraits wasaccepted at the prestigious Paris Salon, an exhibition run by the Frenchgovernment’s Academy of Fine Arts. To protect her family fromembarrassment, Cassatt submitted the painting under the name “MaryStevenson.” Her debut effort was very well received, as was anotherportrait she submitted in 1870.
Not long after the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Cassattreluctantly returned home and immediately encountered obstacles thatthreatened to put an end to her career. Living with her parents in a smalltown well outside Philadelphia, she had problems finding supplies andpeople willing to model for her. To make matters worse, her fatherannounced that he would provide for her basic needs but not for anythingconnected with her work. In an attempt to raise some money, Cassatt leftsome of her paintings with an art dealer in New York, but he was unable tointerest any buyers. She then took them to a dealer in Chicago, where theywere all destroyed in the catastrophic fire of 1871.
Cassatt was close to despair when the archbishop of Pittsburghcontacted her in late 1871 and commissioned her to paint copies of twoworks by the Italian master Correggio. Since the originals were on displayin Parma, Italy, Cassatt accepted the assignment and left immediately forEurope. She used the money she had earned to resume her career in Europe.
The Paris Salon accepted one of her paintings for the 1872 exhibition, andagain she found herself the toast of the continent. Over the next year ortwo, she visited Spain, Belgium, and Rome to continue her studiesAfter the Paris Salon accepted two more of her works in 1873 and1874, Cassatt settled permanently in the French capital. Feelingincreasingly constrained by the inflexible guidelines of the Salon, Cassattdecided to paint how and what she wanted, not just what was fashionable orcommercial. Critics soon charged that her colors were too bright and thather portraits were too accurate to be appropriately flattering to thesubject. When she spied some pastels by Degas in a Paris art dealer’swindow, she knew she was not alone in her rebellion against the Salon. “Iused to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I couldof his art,” she once wrote to a friend. “It changed my life. I saw artthen as I wanted to see it.”Following Degas’s invitation, Cassatt exhibited eleven of herpaintings with the Impressionists in 1879. The show was a tremendoussuccess commercially and critically, as were subsequent exhibitions in 1880and 1881. By this time, she and Degas had become close friends whose strongpersonalities frequently clashed but whose artistic sensibilities wereusually in accord.
Unlike many of the other Impressionists, who favored landscapes andstreet scenes, Cassatt became famous for her charming portraits, primarilyof women in casual domestic surroundings. Nearly one-third of her workdepicted mothers with their children. Like her technique, her treatment ofthis rather conventional subject matter was refreshingly different; as aNewsweek writer observed, her mothers and children are “not the madonnasand cherubs of the Renaissance or the adoring couples of conventionalportraiture.
They are, instead, two separate beings living in easy harmony.”Commenting in American Artist, Gemma Newman noted that “her constantobjective was to achieve force, not sweetness; truth, not sentimentality orromance.”Not long after her first triumphs with the Impressionists, Cassattwas forced to give up painting to care for her mother and sister, who fellill after moving to Paris in 1877. The sister died in 1882, but Mrs.
Cassatt regained her health so that her daughter was able to resumepainting by the mid-1880s.
As Cassatt’s style evolved, she began to move away fromImpressionism and its characteristic exuberance to a simpler, morestraightforward approach. After her last exhibition with the Impressionistsin 1886, she no longer identified herself with any particular movement orschool. She experimented with a variety of techniques and demonstrated aversatility few of her contemporaries shared.
The 1890s became Cassatt’s busiest and most creative period andmarked her emergence as a role model for young American artists who came toEurope seeking her advice about their studies. As the new century beganCassatt shifted emphasis from her own work to that of others. She had longchampioned her fellow Impressionists and rarely missed the chance toencourage wealthy Americans to support the fledgling movement by purchasingartwork. Now she tackled the role in earnest, serving as an advisor toseveral major collectors. Cassatt’s only stipulation was that whatever theypurchased would eventually be passed along to American art museums.
In 1910, Cassatt accompanied her brother Gardner and his family on atrip to Egypt. Overwhelmed by the magnificent ancient art she saw there,she lost confidence in her abilities and the value of her own work; herbrother’s unexpected death from an illness he contracted during the journeyproved to be another devastating blow. The two events combined to affecther physical and emotional health, and she was unable to paint until around1912. By 1915, diabetes forced her to give up working entirely to preservewhat little vision she had left. Cassatt spent the remaining eleven yearsof her life in almost total blindness, bitterly unhappy with the crueltwist of fate that had taken away her greatest source of pleasure. She diedon June 14, 1926, at her beloved country home, Chateau de Beaufresne inMesnil-Theribus, France.
Her legacy is one of courage, independence, and talent that foreverguarantee her a place near the top of her profession. But to the artistherself, who thought “perhaps” her paintings would survive her, her effortshad been inadequate. “I have not done what I wanted to,” Cassatt remarkedtoward the end of her life, “but I tried to make a good fight.”