Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926), born in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, spent her early years with her family in France and Germany. From 1860 to 1862, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. By 1865, she had convinced her parents to let her study in Paris, where she took private lessons from leading academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, copied works of the old masters, and went sketching. She stayed in Courance and Écouen and studied with Édouard Frère and Paul Soyer. In 1868, Cassatt’s painting The Mandolin Player (private collection) was accepted at the Paris Salon, the first time her work was represented there. After three-and-a-half years in France, the Franco-Prussian War interrupted Cassatt’s studies and she returned to Philadelphia in the late summer of 1870.
Cassatt returned to Europe in 1871. She spent eight months in Parma, Italy, in 1872, studying the paintings of Correggio and Parmigianino and working with the advice of Carlo Raimondi, head of the department of engraving at the Parma Academy. In 1873, she visited Spain, Belgium, and Holland to study and copy the works of Velázquez, Rubens, and Hals. In June 1874, Cassatt settled in Paris, where she began to show regularly in the Salons, and where her parents and sister Lydia joined her in 1877. That same year, Edgar Degas invited her to join the group of independent artists later known as the Impressionists. The only American officially associated with the group, Cassatt exhibited in four of their eight exhibitions, in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. Under their influence, Cassatt revised her technique, composition, and use of color and light, manifesting her admiration for the works of the French avant garde, especially Degas and Manet. Degas, her chief mentor, provided criticism of her work, offered advice on technique, and encouraged her experiments in printmaking. Like Degas, she was chiefly interested in figure compositions. During the late 1870s and early 1880s, the subjects of her works were her family (especially her sister Lydia), the theater, and the opera. Later she made a specialty of the mother and child theme, which she treated with warmth and naturalness in paintings, pastels, and prints.
Cassatt’s role as an advisor to art collectors benefited many public and private collections in the United States. From her early days in Paris, she encouraged the collection of old masters and the French avant-garde. In 1901, she accompanied Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer on a collecting trip in Italy and Spain. Cassatt had known Mrs. Havemeyer before her marriage. In 1873, she had encouraged the then seventeen-year-old Louisine Elder to buy a pastel by Degas, and the two women became close friends. Cassatt was eventually instrumental in shaping the Havemeyer collection, most of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum.
Failing eyesight severely curtailed Cassatt’s work after 1900. She gave up printmaking in 1901, and in 1904 stopped painting. She spent most of the war years in Grasse and died in 1926 at her country home, Château de Beaufresne, at Mesnil-Theribus, Oise.
Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cast/hd_cast.htm (October 2004)
Barter, Judith A., et al. Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman. Exhibition catalogue. Chicago: Art Institute, 1998.
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