Biography of Mary Cassatt

Biography of Mary Cassatt

In this biographical account, we trace the life of Mary Cassatt - a great painter who went against all the odds to carve a niche for herself in a male dominated profession.
ArtHearty Staff
Mary Cassatt was an American painter, famous for her series of paintings depicting the intimate relationship between a mother and her child. She was the only artist of American origin to be the member of French Impressionists, a group of artists who went against the norms of academic painting to create artistic marvels.

Life of Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was born on 22nd May, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, United States. She was one of seven children born to Robert Simpson Cassatt, a stockbroker; and Katherine Kelso Johnston. When Mary was seven, the Cassatt family shifted to Paris, France. Inspired by the world of art she witnessed in the European countries, Mary decided to pursue a career in painting. During that period, it was very difficult for a woman to pursue this profession but she was firm on her decision. She joined the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the age of 15. With the wish to learn more about paintings, she took up a study of the 'old masters'; the art work of the European painters, who worked before the 1800s.

In 1866, Mary Cassatt went back to Paris, against her fathers wishes. She started to study privately with Jean-Leon Gerome. She got the necessary permission to train while copying the artwork at the Louvre Museum. By the end of the year, she joined the renowned genre artist, Charles Chaplin's painting classes. In 1868, she studied with the renowned French artist, Thomas Couture. Mary Cassatt's painting titled 'A Mandoline Player' was selected by the jury for the 'Paris Salon', the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In this phase, when all the artists were drifting away from the traditional academic style, she continued with the traditional form for almost a decade.

Cassatt returned to the United States due to the Franco-Prussian War, which broke out in 1870. Back at home, she almost decided to renounce her career in painting due to the lack of financial and moral support from her father. Neither family support nor luck was on her side. When she traveled to Chicago to try her luck, two of her paintings turned to ashes in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Good days returned when the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, fascinated by her art, employed her to paint two copies of Antonio da Correggio's paintings in Italy.

Her return to Europe increased her chances of acquiring a greater degree of fame in this career. In 1872, her painting titled 'Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival' received wide acclamation at the Paris Salon. In 1874, she decided to settle down in France. In 1875, one of her painting was rejected by the jury of Paris Salon, but accepted the next year after she made some alterations in the background of the painting. Later in 1877, when both her entries for the Paris Salon were rejected, she was invited by Edgar Degas to showcase her work with the Impressionists; a group of artists who went against the norms of academic painting to create artistic marvels. Impressionism, as their work was called, had a wide scope of variations in subject matter and technique. She started preparations for the next Impressionist exhibition. The time spent with the Impressionists added to her aesthetic talent and she started aiming for commercial success.

In 1878, Cassatt produced three of her masterpieces the Portrait of the Artist, the Little Girl in a Blue Armchair and the Reading Le Figaro. She displayed eleven paintings at the Impressionists exhibition in 1879. She was an active member of the Impressionists till 1886. Two of her artworks were showcased at the first Impressionist exhibition in the United States in 1886. For a brief period, Mary worked as an advisor to her friend Louisine Elder and her husband, who were collecting Impressionist paintings.

In the 1880s, Cassatt left the Impressionist approach and developed her own style. She started exhibiting her work in the art galleries of New York. She was widely acclaimed for her work depicting the relationship between a mother and child. The Gardner Held by His Mother was one of her earliest pieces of art in the series.

Maturing with time, she became a motivation for budding artists. Her trip to Egypt in 1910 proved to be an inspirational force for the aging painter. She started to work as an advisor to art collectors in the United States. She continued painting even after she was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism and cataract in 1911, until she almost became blind in 1914. After going through a tiring phase of illness, 82 year old, Mary Cassatt died on the 14th of June, 1926, in France.

She was awarded the Légion d'honneur, the highest decoration in France, in 1904. Today her paintings sell for millions in the United States and Europe. Even though she passed away decades ago, she has become immortal in the world of art owing to her sheer aesthetic talent.