Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania in 1844, the daughter of Robert Simpson Cassatt and Katherine Kelso Johnston. Cassatt’s father was a stockbroker and real estate investor. When Cassatt was seven, her family moved to Europe—first living in France and then in Germany. They returned to America in 1855.
Cassatt enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1861. After four years, Cassatt became dissatisfied with the curriculum at the Academy and decided to pursue independent study of the Masters in the museums of France, Italy and Spain. In the 1860’s, this decision was unthinkable for most Victorian women born into a well-to-do family. The idea of women pursuing a career—let alone a career in art—was vulgar to most of society and would have risen more than a few eyebrows. Cassatt prevailed over her family’s protestations and moved to Paris. In Paris, she briefly studied in the Atelier of Charles Chaplin and then studied on her own.
In 1871, Cassatt fled France at the outbreak of the Franco Prussian War and returned to America. Later, she moved to Parma, Italy where she studied engraving at the Parma Academy. While in Italy, her first painting was accepted into the Paris Salon under the name of “Mary Stevenson”.
In 1874, she returned to Paris. Cassatt admired the work of Manet and Degas. Although she continued to submit to the Salon, she was sympathetic towards the goals of the younger artists. These artists sought the right to freely exhibit their work without the restrictive jury process followed by the salons. In 1877, she was rejected from the Salon Show and never submitted again. Cassatt later met Degas. He admired her work and invited her to show with the Impressionists. She participated in four Impressionist shows–the only American to do so. Cassatt focused on capturing modern women in natural settings. Her strong composition and drawing skills set her apart from most of the other Impressionists. She was a fine printmaker and produced groundbreaking work in that field. Cassatt was instrumental in seeing that Impressionist’s works were collected in America. She helped build the Havemeyer Collection which contained many fine examples of Manet, Monet and Degas work. In 1892, Cassatt created a mural for the Chicago Columbian Exhibition. With the sales from her second One Woman Show, Cassatt bought a 17th Century Manor in the Oise Valley in France. It became her summer home for the rest of her life.
Mary Cassatt developed cataracts in 1915, forcing her to abandon her painting the last ten years of her life. She died in 1926.
Mary Cassatt: Modern WomanArt Institute of Chicago
Mary Cassatt Oils and PastelsE. John Bullard
Mary CassattNancy Mowll Mathews
I have tried to express the modern woman in the fashions of our day, the sweetness of childhood, the charm of womanhood if I have not conveyed some sense of that charm, in one word if I have not been absolutely feminine, then I have failed.~ Mary Cassatt