About the Artist
At a time when women were groomed to marry, stay at home and have children, Mary Cassatt was determined to make a career of painting. Through talent and sheer will, she did just that, and became one of America’s most beloved artists.
Mary Cassatt was born in 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now part of Pittsburgh. One of five surviving children, her upper middle class parents gave her the education they thought was suitable for a female of her class distinction. They took her on travels through Europe, gave her music and art lessons and taught her French and German. Her studies were aimed at making her a well-rounded woman who would, eventually, be able to make a good wife and mother. The idea of art as a career for a woman, at that time, was unthinkable, but Cassatt was resolute about studying art and making a living at it.
Cassatt enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the age of 15. Females students were not allowed to draw from live models, but, instead, had to draw from plaster casts. The assumption was that the few females enrolled at the school were there for social, and not serious, reasons. Cassatt studied at the Academy for four years. It was a turbulent time in America, with the Civil War raging.
In 1866, Cassatt convinced her parents to let her move to Paris to continue her studies. Her mother, acting as chaperone, accompanied her. Although Cassatt would have liked to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, women were not accepted, so she arranged private lessons with some of the instructors. She studied with notable teachers like Jean-Leon Gerome, and also spent time copying the Masters at the Louvre. Cassatt submitted a painting, The Mandolin Player, to the Paris Salon, the official exhibit of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, in 1868. Cassatt and American artist Elizabeth Jane Gardner were the first women to exhibit at the Salon.
Cassatt returned to the States in 1870, at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. She had difficulty selling her work in the States and wanted to return to Paris. Although her father was willing to give her room and board, he remained resistant to supporting her art career.
It was a commission from the Archbishop of Pittsburgh that allowed he to return to Europe. He advanced money to Cassatt, so that she could to go to Parma, Italy to copy two paintings by Correggio.
This allowed her to return to Paris and continue her work. In 1872, she submitted Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival to the Salon show. It was not only purchased, but got her the notice of the Paris art community.
It remained difficult for a woman to gain total acceptance in the art world, and even to go to the cafes and clubs where male artists had access, so Cassatt opened a studio in Paris in 1874. After her entries were rejected by the Salon in 1877, Cassatt accepted an invitation from Edgar Degas, who admired her work, to exhibit with a newly-formed group of Impressionists painters. In 1877, Cassatt’s parents, along with her sister, Lydia, rented a large apartment in Paris. Cassatt lived with her family, but her father still insisted that she pay for her own studio and art supplies. Degas helped Cassatt become skilled at printmaking and was a frequent visitor at the family’s apartment.
Later Career and Legacy
After 1900, Cassatt focused increasingly on the bond between mother and child. She was also greatly influenced by an exhibit she had seen of Japanese prints. Her mother, and sister, Lydia, were often models for her works. Cassatt never married and did not have children of her own. She was able to convey the small, private moments in women’s lives, when they were alone, with children or friends and family.
In 1904, Cassatt was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. Cassatt contributed to the suffrage movement and advised American art collectors, stipulating that they eventually donate their collections to American art museums. Cassatt died in France, in 1926, leaving behind a body of work that can be found in major museums and galleries throughout the world.