In 1894 in La Vie artistique, Gustave Geffroy, the art critic, listed three women who had contributed significantly to the history of impressionism: Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot. Bracquemond and Morisot were both French, and although Cassatt was an American, she spent much of her professional life in France eventually making it her permanent home.
Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania to an upper middle-class family on May 22, 1844. Her parents were well-educated and viewed travel as an essential part of education. During her childhood, she spent several years in Europe, visiting all the great cities and learning to speak French and German.
Although her parents were against the idea of making a living through painting, Cassatt began studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She stayed for four years, during the American Civil War, but became dissatisfied with the instruction and treatment of women students, so she also studied the old masters on her own.
Finally, in 1865, Mary’s mother agreed to go with her to Paris for the purpose of studying. The École des Beaux-Arts didn’t accept women, but Jean-Léon Gérôme agreed to teach her privately. She also spent time copying paintings in the Louvre, where she was able to socialize with other artists. In 1868, Cassatt and Elizabeth Jane Gardner were the first two American women to have work accepted by the Paris Salon.
Home again in 1870, Cassatt became very frustrated. Her father refused to pay for her art supplies and she was unable to sell paintings that she placed in a New York gallery. She briefly considered giving up painting and looking for another way to make an independent living when she was commissioned by the Archbishop of Pittsburgh to paint copies of two of Correggio’s paintings in Italy. Returning to Europe, and her reception there, was very encouraging, especially after her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was exhibited and purchased at the Paris Salon.
Cassatt’s relationship with the jury of the Salon and some of her colleagues became strained, and in 1877, for the first time in seven years both of her entries were rejected. At this point, she was invited by Edgar Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists.
Cassatt had always admired Degas and said of his art, “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She enthusiastically joined them and it seemed to set her free. She had always worked inside the studio, but now began to carry a sketch book with her when she went out.
The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 was Cassatt’s most successful to date. Her mother, father and sister Lydia came to join her in Paris and she often painted them, including Woman with a Pearl Necklace of her sister Lydia. She enjoyed a good working relationship with Degas, learning to use pastels and etching from him, but by 1886 Cassatt began to move away from Impressionism and began to experiment with varying techniques.
Cassatt focused primarily on genre painting, often depicting bonds between mothers and their children, although many considered her colors too bright and her figures too accurate to be flattering. After 1900, Cassatt focused primarily on mother and child subjects, which is what she is most well-known for among the general public.
Cassatt was always more appreciated in Europe than in America, even among her own family members. In 1915, she exhibited 18 works in support of women’s suffrage. Her sister-in-law, Eugenie Carter Cassatt, along with much of Philadelphia society, boycotted the show. Cassatt responded by selling off the work that she had previously designated for her heirs. She died near Paris on June 14, 1926 and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Théribus, France.