Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker born in Pennsylvania, however she lived in France many years. There she befriended artists as Edgar Degas and exhibited with the Impressionist group. The French art critic Gustave Geffroy told in 1894 that Cassatt was one of les trois grandes dames of Impressionism alongside Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond.
Cassatt was born into an upper-middle-class family. Her family moved to Philadelphia area when she was only six years old. Her family viewed travel as integral to education, so she spent five years in Europe visiting many important cities as London, Berlin or Paris. During these years abroad she learnt French and German, also she had her first lessons in drawing and music. The first contact she had with French art was at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. At the fair she met the works of artists as Camille Corot, Ingres, Delacroix and Courbet.
When she was 15, she began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, even though her family objected to her becoming a professional painter in part their concern was her exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behaviour often associated to male artists, and that was common among some male students.
Cassatt and her friends advocated for equal rights for men and women. By that time, about 20% of the students were female, as most of the society viewed art as socially valuable skill, however just few of them became professionals.
Since she unsatisfied the instruction at the Academy, it seems to her that there was no teaching and that the pace was too slow, she decided to study the old masters by herself. After facing the objections of her father, she moved to Paris with her mother and some friends in 1866. By that time, women were not yet allowed at the École des Beaux-Arts, so she applied to study private with some of the master of the École. She started studying with Jean-Léon Gérôme. She also improved her techniques as a copyist in the Louvre.
French art scene was changing, there were radical artists such as Courbet or Manet, who tried to break away from accepted Academic and the Impressionists were in their formative years. Cassatt kept working in the traditional manner, submitting her works to the Salon for over ten years, but it was increasing her frustration.
In 1870 she returned to United States but not to her parents’ house, since her father resisted to her decision to be an artist. He paid for basic needs, but not for the art supplies she needed to keep working. It seems that she once considered given up art because she wanted to make an independent living. She moved to Chicago to try her luck, but she lost some of her painting in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Shortly after, her paintings started to get attention, the archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned Cassatt to make two copies of paintings by Correggio in Italy. He advanced her money enough to cover her travel expenses and part of her stay.
In 1872 her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was well received in the Salon and was purchased. She also attracted much favourable notice in Italy and was supported by the art community there. When she completed her commission, Cassatt travelled to Spain (Madrid and Seville), there she painted a group of works with Spanish subjects as Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla (1873 – today in the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
In 1874 she moved to France and opened a studio in Paris. Cassatt was still frustrated with the politics of the Salon. She saw as the works of the female artists were often dismissed with contempt if the artist hadn’t a friend or protector on the jury. In 1877, her works were rejected, it was the first time in seven years that she did not exhibit at the Salon. However, she was invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists (invitation that she accepted with enthusiasm); the group had begun their own independent exhibitions in 1874.
The impressionists had no formal manifesto. They tended to prefer plein air painting and the application of vibrant colours in separate strokes with little pre-mixing. The group already had a female member, Berthe Morisot, who became Cassatt’s friend.
With the Impressionist group, her style gained a new spontaneity. She had adopted the practice of carrying a sketchbook with her while out-doors or at the theatre and recording the scenes she saw.
- Cassatt never did explicit political statements about women’s right, but in her artistic portrayal of women can be found the suggestion of a deeper and meaningful inner life. She depicted the women of 19th century from the woman’s perspective. As she was a well trained and successful female artist who never married, Cassatt could be considered as the personification of the “new woman”.
- Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
- She improved her proficiency in the use of pastels, creating some of her most important works in this medium.