Allegheny City 1844 - Le Mesnil-Théribus 1926


Born near Pittsburgh into a solidly upper-middle-class family, Mary Stevenson Cassatt studied art - against her father’s wishes - at the Pennysylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, at the age of fifteen. Determined to become a professional artist, in 1865 she moved to Paris, where she continued her studies with the painters Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture, while also spending time in Parma, Seville, Madrid, Antwerp and Rome. Cassatt was to remain living and working in France for almost all of her adult life. Although she had a painting accepted at the Paris Salon of 1868, she achieved little success over the next few years. In 1877 none of her submissions to the Salon were accepted, and the same year she met Edgar Degas, who was to become a close friend and mentor. Degas invited Cassatt to exhibit at the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879, where she showed eleven paintings. She was one of two women artists to show with the Impressionists at this time, the other being Berthe Morisot, and she continued to be associated with the group until 1886, exhibiting at the fifth and sixth Impressionist exhibitions in 1880 and 1881.

In 1880 Cassatt’s brother Alexander settled in Paris with his family, and Mary began to devote a considerable amount of time to portraits and studies of her young nephews and nieces, and to depictions of the intimate bonds between mothers and their children. The early 1880s also found Cassatt experimenting with printmaking, producing soft-ground etchings and drypoints in monochrome and, by the beginning of the next decade, in colour. In 1893 she received a commission to paint a large mural for the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a work which is now lost. A solo exhibition of Cassatt’s work at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1893 was followed, two years later, by another large and comprehensive show at the same firm’s galleries in New York.

By this time Cassatt was established as one of the leading female painters in France, and was also highly regarded in her native country as one of the major American artists of her time. In 1904 Cassatt was awarded the Légion d’honneur; only the second female artist to have ever received the honour. In later years she began to suffer from cataracts, and the effect on her eyesight meant that she had to give up printmaking. Despite several operations on her eyes, by the end of the First World War she was almost completely blind, and had to abandon painting in the years before her death at the age of eighty-two.