Mary Cassatt

Portrait of Mary Cassatt Holding Cards
Edgar Degas c. 1876–1878 oil on canvas




It was during my research for this post that the current round of attacks on women came to the forefront, reminding me that the struggle is an old one. The Women's Rights Movement in the United States began at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men adopted resolutions calling for equal treatment under the law and voting rights for women. Mary Cassatt was four, but in a short time, her rebellion against societal and artistic convention would help redefine the role of women. What an immense loss to the art world had she not been 'allowed' to paint.

Born on May 22, 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Mary's well-to-do family believed travel was an important part of a child's education. Perhaps it was this early exposure to Europe's abundant art resources that prompted her to become an artist. Or perhaps the limited options available to wealthy young women of her time compelled her to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The choice to have a career rather than a family was her first challenge. The decision to participate in a male dominated field, the second.

Spanish Dancer Lace Mantilla
1873 Mary Cassatt oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum
I can only imagine the prejudice she faced. My own, much less brutal experience came in 1970 when I began studying graphic arts. I was stunned to hear one of our instructors question the women in the class as to why they even bothered. According to him, Commercial Art, (as it was called at the time), was a male occupation and women should be home…well, you know the rest. Needless to say, I continued doing graphics, and luckily for all of us, Mary Cassatt ignored critics and continued painting. It is interesting to note that she studied at the Academy from 1861 to 1865, the Civil War years.

Two Women Throwing Flowers
During Carnival
Mary Cassatt oil on canvas 1872
In 1866, she further sullied her reputation by moving to Paris, considered the center of the art world. To many conservative Americans, it was a city of sin. Although enrolled in private lessons, she felt stifled and spent most of her time in museums studying and copying the Old Masters. The beginning of the Franco Prussian War in 1870 sent her, unwillingly, back to the United States where her artistic temperament was less tolerated. For sixteen months, she received no support from her family beyond room and board, and had no money to buy art supplies. What was worse, America, not yet a nation known for collections of fine art, offered little to study. She struggled to mount exhibitions and sell previous works to return to Europe. In 1871 Cassatt managed to show two paintings, first in New York and then Chicago, only to have them lost in the flames that destroyed the great Midwestern city.


A Corner of the Loge (In the Box)
Mary Cassatt 1879 Oil on canvas
Private collection
Ironically, it was the Archbishop of Pittsburgh who rescued the artist by commissioning her to copy paintings of Antonio Allegri da Correggio in Parma, Italy. She was beside herself with joy, not only to be painting again, but to savor the abundance of art treasures. Her return was a triumph, and the Salon de Paris exhibited her paintings from 1872–1874.

In 1874 she saw her first impressionist pieces at a show by Edgar Degas. Years later she wrote to her friend and patron, Louisine Havemeyer, “How well I remember, nearly forty years ago, seeing for the first time Degas’ pastels in the window of a picture dealer on the Boulevard Haussmann. I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” That same year, Degas saw her work Ida, at the Salon and invited her to the Société Anonyme des Artistes, often called the Independents. The rest of the art world called them the Impressionists. The Salon jurists, often criticized for their conventional tastes and constraints on artists, made her decision easy. Only three women were invited to join the Independents, and only one American, Mary Cassatt. She showed in 1879, 1880, 1881, and in the group's final show in 1886.

Woman Bathing (La Toilette)
Mary Cassatt 1890-1891
Drypoint and aquatint from three plates
Her success continued until in late 1881 she had to return home to care for her sister and mother who were both ill. Although her mother recovered, her sister Lydia, who had battled illness throughout her life, did not. The usually prolific Cassatt produced little over the next years, but began advising Havemeyer and other American friends and family to collect impressionist art. In 1886, she entered two of her paintings in the first impressionist exhibition in the United States. 

The Boating Party,
Mary Cassatt 1893/1894
oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art
Even while working to bring the avant–garde style to the United States, the drive to grow as an artist moved her away from the 'Independents'. She no longer identified with any group or movement. In 1890, after viewing the Japanese print exhibition in Paris, Cassatt decided to learn printmaking techniques. Within a year, she produced a series of etchings for color prints that some believe were her greatest contribution as an artist. The training in printmaking also influenced her painting style. She began to incorporate blocks of color, simple design, and movement, rather than the softer, sketchier forms of her earlier, impressionistic pieces.

The Child's Bath
Mary Cassatt 1893 oil on canvas
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

It was also around this time that she began working with pastels. Of all her work, the pastel drawings are my favorite. Using an unhesitating flow of color to capture the essence of her models, they are as alive today as they were over 100 years ago. But it was The Child's Bath, an oil painting produced in 1893 and part of the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I first encountered and fell in love with the work of Mary Cassatt. In her later paintings and drawings, the children are the main attraction. They are bored, distracted, and often limp from the weight of being a child. This at a time when children were represented and glorified as little grownups. Cassatt saw and painted them as kids.  

By 1912 Mary had been diagnosed with diabetes and cataracts. In 1914, after several unsuccessful eye operations, she stopped painting. She died in 1926 and is buried in the family vault in France. If you would like to see more, (and I recommend you do), check out the collection at Wikipaintings.org 

The Banjo Lesson
Mary Cassatt 1894 Pastel on Paper
Private Collection


Mary Cassatt was accused of being outspoken and self-centered. Degas, Monet, and other artists of the time who displayed those traits were considered eccentric. Critics even suggested that her detached and unsentimental renderings were not natural in a woman. Sometimes, you just can't win.