Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists.
Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh. She was born into favorable circumstances: her father, Robert Simpson Cassat (later Cassatt), was a successful stockbroker and land speculator, and her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family. The ancestral name had been Cossart. Cassatt was a distant cousin of artist Robert Henri. Cassatt was one of seven children, of which two died in infancy. Her family moved eastward, first to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then to the Philadelphia area, where she began schooling at age six.
Cassatt grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education; she spent five years in Europe and visited many of the capitals, including London, Paris, and Berlin. She had her first lessons in drawing and music while abroad and learned German and French. Her first exposure to French artists Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet was likely at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. Also exhibited at the exhibition were Degas and Pissarro, both of whom would be future colleagues and mentors.
Even though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the early age of fifteen, and continued her studies during the years of the American Civil War. Part of their concern may have been Cassatt’s exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behavior of some of the male students, of which one was Thomas Eakins, later the controversial director of the Academy. About 20% of the students were female. Though most were not bent on making a career of art, they viewed art as a valid means of achievement and recognition, and a socially valuable talent. Cassatt, instead, was determined to become a professional artist.
Impatient with the slow pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study the old masters on her own. She later said, “There was no teaching” at the Academy. Female students could not use live models (until somewhat later) and the principal training was primarily drawing from casts.
Cassatt decided to end her studies (at that time, no degree was granted). She finally overcame her father’s objections and in 1866, she moved to Paris, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones. Since women could not yet attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she applied to study privately with masters from the school. Clearly skilled, she was accepted to study with Jean-Leon Gerome, a highly regarded teacher known for his hyper-realistic technique and his depiction of exotic subjects. A few months later Gerome would also accept Eakins as a student. Cassatt augmented her artistic training with daily copying in the Louvre (she obtained the required permit, which was necessary to control the “copyists”, usually low-paid women, who daily filled the museum to paint copies for sale). The museum also served as a social meeting place for Frenchmen and American female students, who like Cassatt, were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized. In this manner, fellow artist and friend Elizabeth Gardner met and married famed academic painter William Bouguereau.
Toward the end of 1866, she joined a painting class taught by Charles Chaplin, a noted genre artist. In 1868, Cassatt also studied with artist Thomas Couture, whose subjects were mostly romantic and urban. On trips to the countryside, the students drew from life, particularly the peasants going about their daily activities. In 1868 one of her paintings, A Mandoline Player, was accepted for the first time by the selection jury for the Paris Salon. This work is in the Romantic style of Corot and Couture, and is one of only two paintings from the first decade of her career that can be documented today. The French art scene was in a process of change, as radical artists such as Courbet and Manet tried to break away from accepted Academic tradition and the Impressionists were in their formative years. Cassatt’s friend Eliza Haldeman wrote home that artists “are leaving the Academy style and each seeking a new way, consequently just now everything is Chaos”. Cassatt, on the other hand, would continue to work in the traditional manner, submitting works to the Salon for over ten years, with increasing frustration, before striking out with the Impressionists.
Returning to the United States in the late summer of 1870-as the Franco-Prussian War was starting-Cassatt lived with her family in Altoona. Her father continued to resist her chosen vocation, and paid for her basic needs, but not her art supplies. She placed two of her paintings in a New York gallery and found many admirers but no purchasers. She was also dismayed at the lack of paintings to study while staying at her summer residence. Cassatt even considered giving up art, as she was determined to make an independent living. She wrote in a letter of July, 1871, “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 traveled to Chicago to try her luck but lost some of her early paintings in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Shortly afterward, her work attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, who commissioned her to paint two copies of paintings by Correggio in Parma, Italy, advancing her enough money to cover her travel expenses and part of her stay. In her excitement she wrote, “O how wild I am to get to work, my fingers farely itch & my eyes water to see a fine picture again”. With Emily Sartain, a fellow artist from a well-regarded artistic family from Philadelphia, Cassatt set out for Europe again.