Mary Cassatt: Biography, Paintings & Facts

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

In this lesson, you'll meet turn-of-the-century American painter, Mary Cassatt, a contemporary of Edgar Degas and the Impressionists. In addition to an overview of her transcontinental life, you'll also have the chance to examine a few of her well-known paintings.

Early Life

Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, near present-day Pittsburgh, in 1844. Her father, a successful real estate investor and stockbroker, took his family to live in Europe from 1850 to 1855. In keeping with her high-level social status, Cassatt was already predestined for life as a wife and homemaker, despite the fact that the Second Industrial Revolution was underway.

At about age 16, Cassatt enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting, a decision that made her family, and eventually herself, unhappy. Male faculty members and students were not very encouraging, and as a woman, she was not able to paint and sketch from live models. Cassatt left school and studied the European masters of painting on her own until she moved to Paris in 1866.

Accompanied by her mother and some family friends, Cassatt studied privately with teachers from the École des Beaux-Arts because women were not allowed to attend classes at the school. She also got a permit to copy the paintings of the masters that hung at the Louvre. Some of Cassatt's teachers included the hyperrealist, Jean-Leon Gerome; genre artist, Charles Chaplin; and romanticist, Thomas Couture.

Cassatt's early works reflected the 19th century French genre style of painting, which focused on depicting home and everyday life, such as market scenes and parties. In 1868, the prestigious selection jury for the Paris Salon accepted her painting, A Mandolin Player. In spite of this honor, Cassatt became an outspoken critic of the art establishment.

Mary Cassatt returned home to Pennsylvania in the summer of 1870, where her father refused to pay for her art supplies, and the paintings she sent to New York remained unsold. In hopes of finding inspiration and some new paintings to copy, she went to Chicago a year later. Sadly, several of her works were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

In late 1871, Cassatt received a commission from the Archbishop of Bishop to copy two works by Correggio, an Italian Renaissance painter of the Parma school, in Italy. Cassatt found great success in Parma, before moving onto Spain and then Paris in 1874. In 1877, the Paris Salon rejected her submissions to its annual art exhibition.

Impressionistic Period

While in Paris, Mary Cassatt came into contact with Edgar Degas and the Impressionists. The Impressionists were well known for painting scenes with vibrant colors and focusing on landscapes and outdoor events. One of the Impressionists, Georges Seurat, used large dots of paint to create impressions of objects and scenes, which eventually became known as pointillism. Cassatt's move toward Impressionism signaled a major change in her style of painting, as well as a transition from the types of paintings most often accepted by the Paris Salon.

Cassatt's first show with the Impressionists was in 1879. Among the paintings she showed was Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, which she created in 1878. Notice how she incorporates both a scene of everyday life with the noticable painting strokes commonly used by the Impressionists.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair
Cassatt Little Girl

The 1879 Impressionist show was the group's most successful to date. Cassatt also exhibited with them in 1880 and 1881, and again in 1886.

Later Work and Life

In the 1890s, Cassatt turned to pastel drawings and aquatint prints, focusing most of her later works on scenes involving mothers and children. Do you sense the lack of emotion in The Child's Bath pictured below?

The Childs Bath, 1891-1892
Cassatt The Bath

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