Lauren Towers

French III
Ms. Aguado
May 24, 2004
Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt was a great painter of the Impressionist Era. Born
on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Mary Stevenson Cassatt
defied the social conventions of her day to become one of America’s
foremost artists. Growing up in Philadelphia, she was the fifth child of
Katherine Kelso Johnston and Robert Simpson Cassatt, a well-to-do real
estate and investment broker. Her upbringing was fairly typical for the era
and her social class; at school, she prepared for life as a wife and
mother, which included lessons in how to run a home as well as in such
genteel pastimes as embroidery, music, sketching, and painting. To broaden
their children’s education, the Cassatts took them to live in Europe for
several years during the early 1850s.

In 1860, sixteen-year-old Mary enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy
of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Despite the fact that women, especially
those of the upper-class, were discouraged from pursuing careers, she
wanted to be a professional artist. By 1862, however, she had grown
frustrated with the program’s slow pace and inadequate course offerings.

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She also resented the patronizing attitude of the male teachers and most of
her fellow students. She concluded that the best way for her to learn about
art would be to go to Europe and study the works of the old masters on her

Overcoming the strong objections of her family (her father once
declared he would rather see his daughter dead than living abroad as a
“bohemian”), Cassatt left for Paris in 1866 to take private art lessons and
copy masterpieces in the Louvre. Over the next few years, she traveled
throughout France and stayed briefly in Rome.

Her first break came in 1868, when one of her portraits was
accepted at the prestigious Paris Salon, an exhibition run by the French
government’s Academy of Fine Arts. To protect her family from
embarrassment, Cassatt submitted the painting under the name “Mary
Stevenson.” Her debut effort was very well received, as was another
portrait she submitted in 1870.

Not long after the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, Cassatt
reluctantly returned home and immediately encountered obstacles that
threatened to put an end to her career. Living with her parents in a small
town well outside Philadelphia, she had problems finding supplies and
people willing to model for her. To make matters worse, her father
announced that he would provide for her basic needs but not for anything
connected with her work. In an attempt to raise some money, Cassatt left
some of her paintings with an art dealer in New York, but he was unable to
interest any buyers. She then took them to a dealer in Chicago, where they
were all destroyed in the catastrophic fire of 1871.

Cassatt was close to despair when the archbishop of Pittsburgh
contacted her in late 1871 and commissioned her to paint copies of two
works by the Italian master Correggio. Since the originals were on display
in Parma, Italy, Cassatt accepted the assignment and left immediately for
Europe. She used the money she had earned to resume her career in Europe.

The Paris Salon accepted one of her paintings for the 1872 exhibition, and
again she found herself the toast of the continent. Over the next year or
two, she visited Spain, Belgium, and Rome to continue her studies
After the Paris Salon accepted two more of her works in 1873 and
1874, Cassatt settled permanently in the French capital. Feeling
increasingly constrained by the inflexible guidelines of the Salon, Cassatt
decided to paint how and what she wanted, not just what was fashionable or
commercial. Critics soon charged that her colors were too bright and that
her portraits were too accurate to be appropriately flattering to the
subject. When she spied some pastels by Degas in a Paris art dealer’s
window, she knew she was not alone in her rebellion against the Salon. “I
used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could
of his art,” she once wrote to a friend. “It changed my life. I saw art
then as I wanted to see it.”
Following Degas’s invitation, Cassatt exhibited eleven of her
paintings with the Impressionists in 1879. The show was a tremendous
success commercially and critically, as were subsequent exhibitions in 1880
and 1881. By this time, she and Degas had become close friends whose strong
personalities frequently clashed but whose artistic sensibilities were
usually in accord.

Unlike many of the other Impressionists, who favored landscapes and
street scenes, Cassatt became famous for her charming portraits, primarily
of women in casual domestic surroundings. Nearly one-third of her work
depicted mothers with their children. Like her technique, her treatment of
this rather conventional subject matter was refreshingly different; as a
Newsweek writer observed, her mothers and children are “not the madonnas
and cherubs of the Renaissance or the adoring couples of conventional

They are, instead, two separate beings living in easy harmony.”
Commenting in American Artist, Gemma Newman noted that “her constant
objective was to achieve force, not sweetness; truth, not sentimentality or
Not long after her first triumphs with the Impressionists, Cassatt
was forced to give up painting to care for her mother and sister, who fell
ill after moving to Paris in 1877. The sister died in 1882, but Mrs.

Cassatt regained her health so that her daughter was able to resume
painting by the mid-1880s.

As Cassatt’s style evolved, she began to move away from
Impressionism and its characteristic exuberance to a simpler, more
straightforward approach. After her last exhibition with the Impressionists
in 1886, she no longer identified herself with any particular movement or
school. She experimented with a variety of techniques and demonstrated a
versatility few of her contemporaries shared.

The 1890s became Cassatt’s busiest and most creative period and
marked her emergence as a role model for young American artists who came to
Europe seeking her advice about their studies. As the new century began
Cassatt shifted emphasis from her own work to that of others. She had long
championed her fellow Impressionists and rarely missed the chance to
encourage wealthy Americans to support the fledgling movement by purchasing
artwork. Now she tackled the role in earnest, serving as an advisor to
several major collectors. Cassatt’s only stipulation was that whatever they
purchased would eventually be passed along to American art museums.

In 1910, Cassatt accompanied her brother Gardner and his family on a
trip to Egypt. Overwhelmed by the magnificent ancient art she saw there,
she lost confidence in her abilities and the value of her own work; her
brother’s unexpected death from an illness he contracted during the journey
proved to be another devastating blow. The two events combined to affect
her physical and emotional health, and she was unable to paint until around
1912. By 1915, diabetes forced her to give up working entirely to preserve
what little vision she had left. Cassatt spent the remaining eleven years
of her life in almost total blindness, bitterly unhappy with the cruel
twist of fate that had taken away her greatest source of pleasure. She died
on June 14, 1926, at her beloved country home, Chateau de Beaufresne in
Mesnil-Theribus, France.

Her legacy is one of courage, independence, and talent that forever
guarantee her a place near the top of her profession. But to the artist
herself, who thought “perhaps” her paintings would survive her, her efforts
had been inadequate. “I have not done what I wanted to,” Cassatt remarked
toward the end of her life, “but I tried to make a good fight.”