Mary Cassatt was a pioneering Impressionist painter. The only American woman to exhibit her work with the Impressionists in Paris, Mary transcended the boundaries of her sex. Mary's best paintings are those of children and mothers that hint at the ennui simmering under the surface of bourgeois domestic life.
Mary Cassatt was born wealthy. Mary’s father was a real estate and investment broker and her mother came from a family of upper-middle-class bankers. Born in 1844, Mary’s childhood was typical for a child of her class and sex. Mary's education in homemaking, music, and art, prepared her for matrimony and motherhood, not employment.
The Cassatts spent time in France and Germany between 1851 and 1855. This gave Mary exposure to European art at a young age that altered the course of her life.
In 1860, when Mary was 16 years old, she began her formal artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Around 20 percent of the students at the Academy were female. Yet Mary found male students and professors patronizing and the pace of the course too slow. Female students were not permitted to use live models, as male students did, and Mary found the Academy's teaching methods archaic. Despite her parents' reluctance, Mary convinced them to fund her to continue with her studies in Europe. Mary intended to teach herself the fundamentals of art using the work of the Grand Masters themselves.
Mary set out for Paris in 1865 with her mother and friends of her mother as chaperones, determined to make it as an artist. For most women studying painting at the time, artistic ability was a socially valuable skill rather than a calling. For Mary, art was a means of expression as well as a profession.
In Paris, Mary got round the École des Beaux-Arts refusal to teach female students by becoming a copyist at the Louvre. Copyists were usually low-paid female artists who created reproductions of famous work that the Louvre then sold. Berthe Morisot began her art career in the same way. Mary also began private lessons with Jean-Léon Gérôme.
The French art establishment first acknowledged Mary's talent in 1868, when her painting, A Mandoline Player was exhibited at the Paris Salon. It was a time of radical change in European art. In Paris, the Impressionists made a clean break with the establishment in favor of experimentation. Yet Mary continued in the traditional manner. Yet, the Salon rejected Mary’s paintings after 1868 and she struggled to find buyers in Paris and the United States. Mary wanted to make her living as a painter and became so frustrated with the establishment's rejection that she almost gave up.
As the Franco-Prussian war broke out, Mary returned to the US. Mary was still questioning her chosen career path when she received a commission from the Archbishop of Pittsburgh. Thrilled to have a paid commission, Mary threw herself into the task of painting copies of two Correggio paintings for his cathedral. Mary returned to Europe reinvigorated.
In 1877, Mary’s parents joined her in France, along with her sister, Lydia and all four shared an apartment on Avenue Trudaine. Mary struggled to recognize herself as a person distinct from her family. Deciding early on that her art was more important than marriage, Mary stayed close to her parents for her entire life. As a result, Mary’s family often models for her work. This gave her paintings a sense of claustrophobic, nervous domesticity that set them apart from the work of other female artists.
The official art world was yet to embrace Mary, so when Degas invited her to exhibit at the next Impressionist exhibition she accepted. Degas and Mary grew close. Mary also became friends with Berthe Morisot, the founding female of the Impressionist movement. Camille Pissarro mentored Mary, and she produced some of her most accomplished works including, Portrait of the Artist, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair and Reading Le Figaro. Mary’s work was included in the United State’s first major Impressionist exhibition at the Durand-Ruel galleries in 1886.
While much of Mary’s work in the later part of her career depicted the domestic sphere, she never married or had children of her own. Rather than painting decorative portraits of women in a state of maternal bliss, Mary painted enigmatic characters who challenged the viewer’s gaze. There is a tension in Mary’s work that hints at life beyond the frame of her paintings. What’s next for these women after they’ve taken their tea, read the newspaper or cleaned their children’s feet? Are their lives a dreamy ideal of female upper-middle-class domesticity? Or something else entirely? Women of the time who were beginning to push back against this ideal found Mary’s paintings sentimental. But in her best work, Mary took a stand against sentimentality in a subtle but effective way.
In Mary’s later years, her eyesight failed to the point that she could no longer paint. Yet she remained an important figure in the Paris art world. Mary’s friendship with Degas lasted decades. She also maintained a close friendship with American collectors, Harry, and Louisine Havemeyer. The Havemeyers were very wealthy and Mary encouraged them to buy works by artists like El Greco and Goya, some of which are now in public collections.
Mary died on the 14th of June 1926, aged 82.