Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, but lived much of her adult life in France, where she befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt is known for her images of women, especially her intimate scenes of mothers and children.
Cassatt grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education; she spent five years of her childhood in Europe and visited many of the capitals, including London, Paris, and Berlin. While abroad she learned German and French and had her first lessons in drawing and music. It is likely that her first exposure to French artists was at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. Also in the exhibition were Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, both of whom were later her colleagues and mentors.
Though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the age of 15. Part of her parents’ concern may have been Cassatt’s exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behavior of some of the male students. As such, Cassatt and her network of friends were lifelong advocates of equal rights for the sexes.
Although about 20 percent of the Academy’s students were female, most viewed art as a useful skill for a homemaker; few of them were interested, as Cassatt was, to make a career out of art. She continued her studies from 1861 through 1865. Then, impatient with the slow pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study the old masters on her own, leaving the Academy. After overcoming her father’s objections, she moved to Paris in 1866, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones.
Since women could not yet attend the École des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt studied privately with Jean-Léon Gérôme, a highly regarded teacher known for his hyper-realistic technique and his depiction of exotic subjects. Cassatt augmented her artistic training with daily copying in the Louvre. The museum also served as a meeting place for Frenchmen and American female students, who, like Cassatt, were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized.
The French art scene was changing. Radical artists such as Manet tried to break away from accepted Academic tradition and the Impressionists were in their formative years. Cassatt, however, continued to work in the traditional manner, submitting works to the Salon for over ten years, with increasing frustration with her lack of acceptance.
Cassatt observed that works by female artists were often dismissed with contempt unless the artist had a friend or protector on the jury, and she would not flirt with jurors to curry favor. Her cynicism grew when one of the two pictures she submitted in 1875 was refused by the jury, only to be accepted the following year after she darkened the background.
In 1877, both her entries were rejected, and for the first time in seven years, she had no works in the Salon. At this low point in her career, she was invited by Edgar Degas to show her works with the Impressionists, a rebellious group that had begun their own series of independent exhibitions. The Impressionists had no formal manifesto and varied considerably in subject matter and technique. They tended to prefer Plein air painting and the application of vibrant color in separate strokes with little pre-mixing, which allows the eye to merge the results in an “impressionistic” manner. The Impressionists endured the critics’ disdain.
Cassatt admired Degas, whose pastels had made a powerful impression on her when she encountered them in an art dealer’s window in 1875. “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art,” she later recalled. “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She accepted Degas’ invitation with enthusiasm and began preparing paintings for the next Impressionist show, which took place on April 10, 1879. She felt comfortable with the Impressionists and, unable to attend cafes with them without attracting unfavorable attention, she met with them privately and at exhibitions. She now hoped for commercial success selling paintings to the sophisticated Parisians who preferred the avant-garde. Her style had gained a new spontaneity during the intervening two years. Previously a studio-bound artist, she had adopted the practice of carrying a sketchbook with her while out-of-doors or at the theater and recording the scenes she saw.
In 1877, Cassatt was joined in Paris by her father and mother, who returned with her sister Lydia, all eventually to share a large apartment. This suited Mary since she had decided early in life that marriage would be incompatible with her career.
Under Degas’ tutelage, she became extremely proficient in the use of pastels, eventually creating many of her most important works in this medium. Degas also introduced her to etching, of which he was a recognized master. The two worked side-by-side for a while, and her draftsmanship gained considerable strength under his tutelage. He depicted her in a series of etchings recording their trips to the Louvre. She treasured his friendship but learned not to expect too much from his fickle and temperamental nature after a project they were collaborating on at the time, a proposed journal devoted to prints, was abruptly dropped by him. The sophisticated and well-dressed Degas, then forty-five, was a welcome dinner guest at the Cassatt residence, and likewise they at his soirées.
Cassatt and Degas had a long period of collaboration. The two had studios close together, less than a five-minute stroll apart, and Degas got into the habit of looking in at Cassatt’s studio and offering her advice and helping her get models. They had much in common: they shared similar tastes in art and literature, came from affluent backgrounds, had studied painting in Italy, and both were independent, never marrying. Degas, Cassatt, and Lydia were often to be seen at the Louvre studying artworks together. Cassatt frequently posed for Degas and was instrumental in helping Degas sell his paintings and build his reputation in America.
Cassatt’s style then evolved, and she moved away from Impressionism to a simpler, more straightforward approach. She began to exhibit her works in New York galleries as well. After 1886, Cassatt no longer identified herself with any art movement and experimented with a variety of techniques.
Information for this article came from Wikipedia.