Woman Making History #35: Mary Cassatt


Mary CassattMary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Pennsylvania. She was from a rich family and traveled extensively in Europe as a child. At the age of 17, she began studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After studying here for four years, she moved to Paris in 1866, with the intention of studying European art independently.

Cassatt returned to her family in the U.S. when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, but her family was not supportive of her artistic ventures, so she returned to Paris in 1871. At that point, the archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned her to go to Europe and paint copies of old masters' paintings.

Upon her return to France, Cassatt studied with Pissarro. In 1872, her first painting was accepted into the Paris Salon, where it was criticized for being too brightly colored and too realistic. Undeterred, Cassatt met Degas and in 1879 her work was displayed in an Impressionists show. Cassatt became an active member of the Impressionists circle, painting mostly in pastel, like Degas.

blue-armchair.jpgCassatt's subject matter was most often people, particularly mothers and their children. In addition to Impressionists, she was also inspired by printmaking and Japanese art. At right, her painting "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" (1878), is emblematic of her work.

In the early 1880s, Cassatt quit painting in order to care for her mother and sister, both of whom were ill and living in Paris. Her sister died in 1882, but her mother regained her health and Cassatt resumed painting by the middle of the decade. At this point, Cassatt stopped identifying herself with any art movement and painted in a more straightforward, simple way than she had in her Impressionist period. Throughout the 1890s she continued to paint and to serve as a mentor to younger artists, particularly up-and-coming Americans.

Cassatt's brother died in 1906, at which time she took another sabbatical from painting, until 1912. She painted for only a couple of years, however, before her health and impending blindness forced her to stop in 1914. At this time, she also became involved in women's suffrage, exhibiting her work to support the movement.

Cassatt died in 1926. Her paintings have grown in popularity since her death, selling for a high of $2.8 million in 2005.

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