Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and grew up in Philadelphia.
She enrolled in art school in 1861, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, at the age of 17. This was not what women were ‘supposed to’ do back then, so her father apparently told her he would almost rather see her dead. He protested even further when she decided to move to Paris after her studies, in 1866, at about age 22.
In Paris, she studied under a traditional art teacher, and studied the traditional art at the Louvre, but she also studied the art of Manet. She couldn’t study at the Paris School of Fine Arts, because women were not yet allowed to enrol.
A painting of hers called “The Mandolin Player” was accepted to the Paris Salon in 1868. This was a great sign of success of having broken through the Paris traditional art world; a significant feat for a woman artist to do in those days. Art was very much a man’s world, especially when it came to making a career of it.
She had to return to America at the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war in 1870, and then travelled around the rest of Europe until 1874, when she moved back to Paris.
Her good friend, Edgar Degas, invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1877. Like the other Impressionists, she enjoyed everyday, common subjects, but had a hard time as a woman to access these....as a single woman, social conventions would not have her frequenting bars or brothels, or being alone in a studio with a male model......so she focussed on women as her subjects.
Through her American family’s connections, Cassatt helped the other Impressionists find American buyers.
Cassatt saw an exhibit of Japanese art in 1890 that greatly influenced her work thereafter. From then on in, she painted flat areas of colour, and an emphasis on decorative patterns. She was a great graphic artist.
Cassatt and Degas became very close friends, and perhaps fell in love. An intimate relationship between them can’t be confirmed though because she burned all their letters. Either way, they did work closely and he even helped paint the background of her painting “Little Girl on a Blue Armchair”. They both painted tightly cropped compositions from unusual viewpoints that made the paintings have a photo snapshot effect.
Cassatt used oils, prints and pastels, as did Degas.
In April 1891, she held her own show at a gallery of Durand-Ruel, the main art dealer that helped the Impressionists sell paintings.
She spent her older years back and forth between her Paris apartment and her summer home, the Chateau de Beaufresne, a manor house built in the 17th century 50 miles from Paris. During WWI, however, she lived in Grasse in the south of France.
She received the French Legion of Honour in 1904. Her eyesight started failing in about 1911, and by the time she died June 14, 1926, she was completely blind.
While in Paris, you can see some of Mary Cassatt’s works at the Musee d’Orsay.