Artists & Designers

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

The daughter of a Pittsburgh broker, Mary Cassatt was born into a privileged American home in 1844. She was first introduced to art during her childhood travels throughout Europe, eventually enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the age of 16. She began her early education like many artists her age by copying antique casts from the Academy’s collection. Her parents were initially unenthused about her artistic career due to the negative social stigma associated with women artists, but they eventually allowed her to move to Paris with her mother in 1865 to study. Though women could not yet attend the École des Beaux-Arts—the most prestigious art school in Paris—Cassatt trained privately with Academic members and leading Salon painters, including Jean-Leon Gérome, Charles Chaplin, and Thomas Couture. She supplemented her education by copying paintings at the Louvre, an activity that provided an invaluable social and professional space for women who were excluded from the Parisian cafés where male artists frequently socialized. After a sixteen-month sojourn to America during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–1871, Cassatt returned to Europe to paint and copy works in the museums of Parma, Madrid, Seville, Antwerp, and Rome.

In 1874, she settled with her sister in Paris, where she worked as a portrait and genre painter specializing in depictions of women in posh interiors. While in Paris she was highly influenced by the work of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas, eventually developing her own innovative style that broke with academic tradition. After Cassatt was rejected from the Salon for three consecutive years (1875, 1876, and 1877), Degas invited her to exhibit with the Impressionist group, an action that marked the beginning of a supportive and fruitful forty-year friendship. Cassatt exhibited with the Impressionists in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886 and was highly influenced by their work as she began exploring pastels and printmaking. Her paintings continued to spotlight mothers, children, and the concept of the modern woman.

After 1886, the year of the last Impressionist exhibition, Cassatt began revising and experimenting with her Impressionist style. In 1891, the Galerie Durand-Ruel mounted her first solo exhibition, which featured innovative color prints and paintings, and she continued to exhibit her works across Europe and America. In 1904 she was awarded the prestigious Legion of Honor in France, and contemporary critics referred to her as “the most eminent of all living American women painters.” Cassatt’s production slowed after she developed cataracts, and by 1914, she was forced to give up printmaking and painting completely due to her failing eyesight. She died in 1926 and is remembered today as an important member of the French Impressionist group and, through her position as an advisor to American collectors, for her significant role in the appreciation of avant-garde French painting in the United States.

Excerpt from

Kelsey Martin and Nicole Myers, DMA exhibition text Women Artists in Europe from the Monarchy to Modernism, 2018.

Fun Facts

  • Mary Cassatt is a distant cousin of Robert Henri, who became a leading artist and teacher in the US after the turn-of-the-century.

  • Mary Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the same time as Thomas Eakins, who went on to be the school's director and continually advocated for women artists to be trained with the same methods and resources as male artists. Months after Cassatt secured a position studying in Jean-Leon Gerome's Parisian studio, the master artist also accepted Eakins as a student.

  • Along with her friend Elizabeth Jane Gardner whose work was accepted the same year, Mary Cassatt became one of the first American women to have art exhibited at the annual Salon in Paris in 1868.

  • At the age of 50, Cassatt purchased Château de Beaufresne in a small town outside of Paris. The home's name Beaufresne, refers to the "Beautiful Ash [trees]" that grow on the property. She and her family lived there for over three decades.

  • When she arrived in Paris in 1866, Mary Cassatt could not enroll at the École des Beaux Arts because the school did not admit women.

Web Resources

  • Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926)
    Read H. Barbara Weinberg's biographical essay and see more examples of her work through the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

  • Americans in Paris, 1860-1900
    Read H. Barbara Weinberg's essay about this group of expatriate artists on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

  • Mary Cassatt: A Woman's World (Antiques & Fine Art)
    Read William H. Gerdts' informative review of the 2008 exhibition, Mary Cassatt: Prints and Drawings from the Collections of Ambroise Vollard (2008, Adelson Galleries, New York, NY).