Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926), an American painter, is considered a member of the French impressionist group. Best known for her series of paintings of a mother and child, she also portrayed fashionable society.

Mary Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on May 23, 1845. As a child, she lived for a time in France. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1866 she began her travels in Italy, Spain, and Holland, finally settling in Paris. There she exhibited at the Salon and met Edgar Degas, who was her real teacher, as she was his only pupil.

Despite her success at the Salon, Cassatt's sympathies lay with the impressionists, and in 1877 at Degas's suggestion she joined the group and exhibited with them in 1879. Her work sold well, particularly in Philadelphia, and she in turn bought paintings by the French impressionists. She also helped American friends, such as the Havemeyers, form their collections of impressionist paintings. Cassatt remained strongly American in her sentiments, as many expatriates do, and she wrote the American painter J. Alden Weir that "at some future time I shall see New York the artists' ground."

Cassatt's brother, Alexander, brought his family to Paris in 1880, the first of many trips. Although she never married, she was enchanted by her nieces and nephews and excelled in painting children, who dominate her subject matter. Her early work, done with the impressionists, is probably her best, but she remains known as the painter and poet of the nursery.

The paintings of Mary Cassatt, filled with light and joy, give a false impression of this strong-minded and somewhat difficult woman. She was at her best in her relations with other artists, for only in this environment did she consider herself among her intellectual equals. In later life she suffered from ill health and failing eyesight and was totally blind at her death. She died in her château at Mesnil-Beaufresne on June 14, 1926.


Painting Style

Midway in her career Cassatt ceased to be an impressionist painter. Her early works have the delicacy, the atmospheric effects, the play of light and shadow associated with the style, but she never used broken color and her use of complementary colors was slight. Paintings like La Lo are indeed impressionist pictures and have the characteristic instantaneous effect of being caught out of the corner of the eye. But her paintings of mothers and children are fully realized and three-dimensional; the drawing is classical and complete; and the color, far from being light and separated into its component parts, is flat and sometimes rather acid, like the Japanese prints which influenced her so much. These careful figure studies, completely rendered, in no way reflect the infinite variety of nature or the passing world, as the paintings of the impressionists did; they exist entirely in the hothouse atmosphere of the nursery, with no sound except the little cries.


Further Reading on Mary Cassatt

The only thorough treatment of Mary Cassatt's life is Frederick A. Sweet's excellent Miss Mary Cassatt, Impressionist from Pennsylvania (1966). Sweet had access to family letters and papers that provide the basis for a new understanding of her character. Other biographies include Forbes Watson, Mary Cassatt (1932), and Julia M. H. Carson, Mary Cassatt (1966). For general background see John Rewald, The History of Impressionism (1946; rev. ed. 1961).