French journalist, art critic, historian and novelist Gustave Geffroy described Mary Cassatt, along with Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot, as “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism in 1894. Although Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania, she lived most of her life in France. An Impressionist painter, Cassatt’s themes were mostly on the social and private lives of women, particularly focusing on the intimate bond between a mother and child.
Born on May 22, 1844 to Robert Simpson Cassatt (a stockbroker and land speculator) and Katherine Kelso (from a banking family), Mary Cassatt lived the life of an upper middle-class family. Her father is a descendant of Jacques Cossart, a French Huguenot who came to New Amsterdam in 1662. Her mother, who was very well read, had a large impact on Mary’s life.
Cassatt is one of seven children and her life consisted of frequent travels. She had traveled to several well-known European cities, including Berlin, London and Paris. It is during these travels that she was exposed to French artists. Although her parents didn’t want her to pursue a career in the arts, Cassatt persisted.
Needless to say, Cassatt led an interesting life and here are some fascinating facts about her.
1. She Studied Painting Despite Objections From Her Parents
It is believed that the concern of Cassatt’s parents were her exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behavior of male students. Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where 20% of the population were female. Although they viewed art as a skill that is socially valuable, only a few of them wanted to pursue a career as an artist.
2. She Decided To Study The Old Masters On Her Own
Cassatt became frustrated with the pace of instruction at the academy and was also impatient regarding the patronizing attitudes of male students and teachers. According to Cassatt, “There was no teaching” at the academy and females couldn’t use live models and training mostly involved drawing from casts. She ended her studies and moved to Paris despite objections from her father.
3. She Studied Privately With Jean-Léon Gérôme
Females couldn’t yet attend the École des Beaux-Arts and as such, Cassatt applied to get private lessons with masters from the school. Jean-Léon Gérôme, known for his hyper-realistic technique and exotic subjects, accepted to be her teacher.
4. She Copied Art At The Louvre
Apart from her lessons with Gérôme, Cassatt did copying work at the Louvre. A lot of women painted copies of works for sale. The museum was also a place were Frenchmen and American female students can socialize as they weren’t allowed in cafes that catered to the avant-garde.
5. She Was One Of Two American Women To Exhibit At The Paris Salon
Cassatt, together with her friend Elizabeth Jane Gardner, became the first two American women to exhibit at the Salon. The work that was accepted was A Mandoline Player, which is one of two paintings from Cassatt’s early painting years that remain.
6. She Wanted To Give Up Art
As the Franco-Prussian War was starting in the late summer of 1870, Cassatt returned to the United States. She stayed in Altoona with her family and though she was able to put two of her paintings in a New York gallery, they didn’t have buyers. She was also frustrated at the lack of paintings to study at home.
Her frustration reached the maximum level as she decided to quit art. In a letter to a friend dated July 1871 she says: “I have given up my studio & torn up my father’s portrait, & have not touched a brush for six weeks nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe. I am very anxious to go out west next fall & get some employment, but I have not yet decided where.”
She decided to try her luck in Chicago but some of her paintings were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Her work attracted the archbishop of Pittsburgh who asked her to paint copies of works done by Coreggio in Parma, Italy. The advance was big enough to cover travel expenses and part of her stay. Together with fellow artist Emily Sartain, Cassatt set out for Europe once more.
7. She Experienced a Low Point On Her Return To Paris
After completing her job for the archbishop, Cassatt traveled to Madrid and Seville and produced paintings of Spanish subjects. By 1874, she decided to stay in France but she grew increasingly frustrated with the Salon’s stance on female artists. Even her relationship with Sartain broke down as the latter described her as outspoken and self-centered.
Cassatt decided to paint more fashionable subjects to get American socialites living abroad to commission paintings from her. However, that didn’t amount to anything. Two of her entries for the Salon were rejected in 1877 and for the first time in many years, she had no works displayed at the Salon.
During this low point in her career, she was invited by Edgar Degas to show her work to the Impressionists, a group whose works varied in subject matter and technique. Cassatt felt comfortable with the Impressionists and started preparing for their next show.
8. She Was Much Influenced By Edgar Degas
Cassatt was an admirer of Degas’, particularly his use of pastels. Upon seeing his pastels at an art dealer’s window in 1875, she said: “I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art.”
Degas and Cassatt were both experimental in their use of materials. Over time, Cassatt also became proficient in her use of pastels, eventually making it the medium in which most her works were done.
9. She Experimented With Other Techniques Later In Life
Cassatt didn’t identify herself with any art movement after 1886. From that point forward, she tried out different techniques. She concentrated on mother-and-child subjects after 1900.
Mary Cassatt’s Legacy
Her paintings have sold as much as $4 million for In the Box which sold at Christie’s, New York. Her painting, The Boating Party, was reproduced on a US postage stamp in 1966. Four other paintings of hers were reproduced as part of the American Treasures series.