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Mary Cassatt Photo

Mary Cassatt

American Draftsman, Painter, and Printmaker

Born: May 22, 1844 - Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: June 14, 1926 - Mesnil-Theribus, Oise, France
Movements and Styles:
Proto-Feminist Artists
"I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art - I began to live."
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Mary Cassatt Signature
"I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work."
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Mary Cassatt Signature
"It is as well not to have too great an admiration for your master's work. You will be in less danger of imitating him. "
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Mary Cassatt Signature
"A woman artist must be .. capable of making the primary sacrifices."
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Mary Cassatt Signature
"I have touched with a sense of art some people - they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare that to the joy for an artist?"
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Mary Cassatt Signature
"There are two ways for a painter: the broad and easy one or the narrow and hard one."
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Mary Cassatt Signature
"Most women paint as though they are trimming hats. Not you."
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Degas said to Cassatt

Summary of Mary Cassatt

American-born Mary Cassatt traveled to France for her artistic training and remained there for most of her life and career. There she was recognized by contemporaries like Edgar Degas for her talent, and she became the only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris. Her signature subjects were portraits of women and portrayals of mothers and children caught in everyday moments. In both her style and her insightful evocations of women's inner lives, she was a distinctly modern artist of the late-19th century.


  • Cassatt's work combined the light color palette and loose brushwork of Impressionism with compositions influenced by Japanese art as well as by European Old Masters, and she worked in a variety of media throughout her career. This versatility helped to establish her professional success at a time when very few women were regarded as serious artists.
  • Cassatt's art typically depicted domestic settings, the world to which she herself (as a respectable woman) was restricted, rather than the more public spaces that her male contemporaries were free to inhabit. Her material was occasionally dismissed as quintessentially "feminine," yet most critics realized that she brought considerable technical skill and psychological insight to her subject matter.
  • Through her business acumen and her friendships and professional relationships with artists, dealers, and collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, Cassatt became a key figure in the turn-of-the-century art world and helped to establish the taste for Impressionist art in her native United States.

Biography of Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt Photo

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born to a comfortably upper-middle-class family: her father was a successful stockbroker, and her mother belonged to a prosperous banking family. The Cassatts lived in France and Germany from 1851 to 1855, giving the young Mary an early exposure to European arts and culture. She also learned French and German as a child; these language skills would serve her well in her later career abroad. Little else is known about her childhood, but she may have visited the 1855 Paris World's Fair, at which she would have viewed the art of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, among other French masters.

Progression of Art

Little Girl in Blue Armchair (1878)

Little Girl in Blue Armchair

In this important work of her mature career, Cassatt chose to portray a young girl alone in a domestic interior. The visible brushwork and the figure's informal pose are hallmarks of Impressionism; the asymmetrical composition, raised viewpoint, shallow space, and abrupt cropping of the scene all indicate the influence of Japanese art. Cassatt also brings her own astute observations to the construction of this image. The girl, who was a child of a friend of Degas, is seated in a sprawling, unselfconscious manner that reminds the viewer of her young age, and the way that she is dwarfed by the adult furniture around her evokes the awkwardness and isolation of certain stages of childhood.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the Loge (1878)

In the Loge

This canvas shows a stylish woman attending a daytime performance at the Comedie-Francaise, a famous theater in Paris. The woman's profile is set off against the red velvet and gilt decoration of the box seats behind her as she raises a pair of opera glasses to her eyes. The black of her dress is echoed in the clothing of other figures in the background, including a man several boxes down who regards her through his own glasses. Cassatt has perceptively grasped the fact that the members of the well-dressed audience are putting on their own performances for one another. The main figure may be watching the stage or observing her fellow theatergoers while she herself becomes the subject of the man's gaze; meanwhile, the viewer, who is placed just beside the woman, takes in the entire scene. When Cassatt exhibited In the Loge in Boston in 1878, one critic praised it by writing that Cassatt's work "surpassed the strength of most men."

Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lydia Reading the Morning Paper (No. 1) (1878-79)

Lydia Reading the Morning Paper (No. 1)

Cassatt's older sister, Lydia, was one of the artist's favorite models. In this painting, Lydia is seated in profile, with her gown and her face painted in the same loose, feathery brushstrokes as the background and the armchair that locks her diagonally posed figure into the asymmetrical composition. The typically Impressionist palette of white, rose, light blues, and fresh green evokes a light-hearted mood, yet this is also a serious moment: in showing her subject reading a newspaper, Cassatt alludes to the importance of women's growing literacy in the 19th century, to their increasing involvement in society beyond the home, and to their awareness of current events as they began to fight for voting rights.

Oil on canvas - Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska

A Woman and a Girl Driving (1881)

A Woman and a Girl Driving

In addition to capturing the life of domestic interiors, theaters, and opera houses, Cassatt also trained her gaze on figures in Paris's parks and gardens, some of the few public spaces where respectable women could move freely in society. The models for this painting were Cassatt's sister, Lydia, and Degas's young niece. The setting is the Bois de Boulogne, a large, verdant park that was a popular meeting place and a scenic destination for pleasure rides. Cassatt honed in tightly on her subject, cropping the horse at the left side of the composition and the carriage at the right side and bottom. The small girl, dressed in pale pink, sits quietly beside the woman who holds the reins; this contrast between youth and adulthood, experience and learning, is one of Cassatt's many moments of psychological observation. This work was also unusual for its time in its depiction of a well-bred woman performing a physically active (if still genteel) task.

Oil on canvas - Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Letter (1890-91)

The Letter

In April 1890, Cassatt attended an exhibition of Japanese colored woodcuts at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Following this event, she decided to create a series of ten prints showing the life of a modern-day woman. The completed series included scenes of women performing their toilettes, washing their children, having tea, and so on; this example shows a woman sealing a letter she has just written at her desk. The composition balances patterns (the wallpaper, the woman's dress) against solid areas of color (the vertical back of the desk, the paper of the letter and envelope) and brings the viewer close to the room's shallow space, where forced perspective is evident in the oddly skewed writing panel of the desk. These stylistic choices were influenced by traditional Japanese printmaking, yet the woman's garments and the other objects are all contemporary details of Cassatt's world.

Drypoint and aquatint on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Child's Bath (1893)

The Child's Bath

In this intimately observed vignette of a woman bathing her young daughter, Cassatt again combines certain stylistic influences of Japanese art with the subject matter of her own milieu. The variety of patterns in this composition, including several floral designs and the bold stripes of the woman's dress, is united by a restrained palette of grays and mauves; the soft coloration allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject of the scene, the close relationship between mother and child. Their intimacy is demonstrated by their closely positioned faces and by the circle of touch that extends from the woman's hand on the child's foot to the child's hand on the woman's knee. In their shared absorption in their task, they are as closely related as the pitcher and bowl that they are using for this domestic ritual. In works such as this one, Cassatt evoked the traditional artistic subject matter of the Madonna and Child, making her imagery secular rather than religious.

Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago (1893)

Art Institute of Chicago

Cassatt's largest work, a 58-by-12-foot mural, was painted for the Women's Building of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was comprised of three panels: Young Girls Pursuing Fame; Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science; and Arts, Music, Dancing. Unfortunately, the entire mural was destroyed at the close of the exposition and is only recorded in a few black-and-white photographs and one colored print of the central panel. This detail of Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science provides a glimpse into Cassatt's influences and themes for this monumental work. The mural borrowed from sources as diverse as Italian Renaissance frescoes, Japanese prints, and Les Nabis, but once again Cassatt transformed these materials into something that was hers alone. By showing a community of women assisting and supporting one another, she presented the audience of the Columbian Exposition with a very modern scene that symbolized female independence and progress on the verge of a new century in America.

Oil on canvas - (destroyed)

Mother and Child (c. 1905)
c. 1905

Mother and Child

By the turn of the century, Cassatt was working almost exclusively with the subject of mothers and children, using professional models for her figures. In this painting, she again looks closely at an interaction between women at different stages of life. The mother's fashionable outfit serves as a foil for the child's innocent nudity, and the two figures are united by their gestures and their gazes. By including two mirrors within the composition, Cassatt established a complex spatial and conceptual arrangement of images within images. Artists from Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens to Édouard Manet had depicted women looking at themselves in mirrors, seeing themselves as objects of beauty to be admired by others. Cassatt was aware of this tradition in Western art, but she subverted it in Mother and Child. Here, the woman and girl both look into the small, circular mirror, where they regard the child's reflection together. In this enigmatic work, the true subjects then become the young girl's evolving feminine identity and her future womanhood under the guidance of maternal influence.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Mary Cassatt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 08 May 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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