Editorial Feature

10 Things You Might Not Know About Mary Cassatt

Discover more about the only American to ever exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris

Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker, who boldly rebelled against the expectations set for her as a woman in the 19th century and travelled to Europe to find her independence as a professional artist. She made her name as an Impressionist, renowned for her intimate depictions of women, particularly mothers and children, and for her insight into the female inner life. Get to know her a little better, with these 10 facts you might not know about her.

1. She descended from a stockbroker and bankers

Cassatt was born into an upper middle-class family full of successful business-types: her father was a stockbroker, her mother came from a banking family and one of her brother’s became president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It’s safe to say that her family put a lot of emphasis on education and success, which for Mary meant preparing to be a good wife and mother, not a career in the arts. Cassatt’s father did not support her ambition to paint professionally and refused to give her any money that would go towards buying her art supplies. But determined to rebel and gain financial independence, she continued to paint and seek commissions until she did just that.

Self-Portrait, by Mary Cassatt, circa 1880 (From the collection of Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery)

2. She found her own way to educate herself

Despite her parents' objections, Cassatt began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia when she was 15. However, Cassatt found the attitudes of the male students and teachers patronizing and the pace too slow. As a woman, she was banned from using live models and was only permitted to draw from inanimate objects. Fed up, she left and travelled to Paris with her mother and applied to study privately with masters from the Ecole des Beaux Arts (women were not allowed to actually attend the school) and spent many long days in the Louvre, copying works from there.

Girl Arranging Her Hair, by Mary Cassatt, 1886 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

3. She was one of two American women to first exhibit in the Salon

Cassatt began taking classes with Charles Chaplin and Thomas Couture, which she found to be a much more enriching experience as the students took trips to the countryside where the students could draw from life. Soon after, in 1968, one of her paintings was accepted for the Paris Salon, making her one of the first American women to exhibit there (the other being Elizabeth Jane Gardner who was accepted at the same time).

The Child's Bath, by Mary Cassatt, 1893 (From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)

4. She lost some of her early work in the great Chicago fire of 1871

In 1870, Cassat returned home to live with her family in Pennsylvania, and with her parents still objecting to her career, she travelled to Chicago to try and sell some of her paintings. She’d already tried her hand in New York, placing two in a gallery there, but although her work had attracted many admirers she found no buyers. In Chicago things got worse when the Great Chicago Fire, which burned for 3 days and ravaged just over 3 square miles of Chicago, destroyed much of her work. Fortunately, shortly after, the archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned her to paint two copies of works by Corregio, and the money allowed Cassatt to travel back to Europe to Parma, Italy.

The Family, by Mary Cassatt, 1892 (From the collection of Chrysler Museum of Art)

5. She was the only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris

Cassatt permanently moved to Paris in 1874, but began to find the conventional tastes of the Salon tiring, and she disdained the way that they were often dismissive of female artists. One day, she was approached by Edgar Degas and invited to exhibit with the Impressionists, who were considered radical for their lack of formality, varied techniques, and use of vibrant color in distinct brush-strokes. The 1879 exhibition that she participated in, displaying 11 of her works, was their most successful and most profitable one to date. Cassatt used her takings to purchase a painting by Degas and one by Monet, evidently inheriting her family’s shrewd business sense. She was active with the Impressionists until 1886, and also participated in their first exhibition in the US.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, by Mary Cassatt, 1879 (From the collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art)

6. She became best buds with Edgar Degas

Cassatt’s introduction into the Impressionist circle began a long period of collaboration between her and Degas: they shared similar tastes; had neighbouring studios; Degas taught Cassatt engraving and to use pastels; and Cassatt helped him sell his work in America. Both of them never married, and there has been speculation about whether or not they were in a romantic relationship, but none of their letter survive to assess their level of intimacy. Cassat frequently posed for Degas, and Degas produced two prints of Cassatt at the Louvre looking at artworks, which you can see below.

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, by Edgar Degas, 1879 - 1880 (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Mary Cassatt au Louvre Musee des Germain Antiques, by Edgar Degas, Not dated (From the collection ofJohannesburg Art Gallery)

7. She was inspired by the Japanese masters

In 1890, an exhibition of the Japanese masters came to Paris, and Cassatt became an ardent fan of the Ukiyo-e genre. She admired the simplicity and clarity of their lines, and their use of color blocking. She emulated their style the following year with a show of colored drypoint and aquatint (a variant of etching) prints, one of the very few artists to be producing these types of prints at the time. The works, in which she kept to her Impressionist roots by steering clear of using the color black, included Woman Bathing and The Coiffure, as seen below.

Woman Bathing, by Mary Cassatt, 1890-1891 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
The Coiffure, by Mary Cassatt, 1890-1891 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

8. She was instrumental in developing collections of some big American museums

When the Impressionists first exhibited in America, she encouraged her art collector friend Louisine Elder and her wealthy husband Harry Havemeyer to begin collecting the works of the Impressionists on a grand scale. It was a very sensible suggestion indeed as a lot of their collection are now star pieces at MOMA in New York and many Impressionist works now sell for millions. In the early 19th century, Cassatt also served as an advisor to many other major art collectors, with the stipulation that they eventually donated their purchases to American art museums.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, by Mary Cassatt, 1878 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

9. She had to retire early because of her eyesight

In 1910 Cassatt travelled to Egypt and was so in awe of the ancient art she saw there that she found herself with a bit of creative block. She claimed that she was "crushed by the strength of this Art", saying, "I fought against it but it conquered, it is surely the greatest Art the past has left us ... how are my feeble hands to ever paint the effect on me." Incidentally, the following year Cassatt was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism and cataracts and by 1914 she was almost completely blind, forcing her into early retirement.

Sketch of a Mother Looking Down at Thomas, by Mary Cassatt, 1893/1893 (From the collection of High Museum of Art)

10. Even though she couldn’t paint, she used her art to support the suffrage movement

When Cassatt could no longer paint, she still found a way to make changes to the restrictions pinned on women with her art. Throughout her career she had opposed to being stereotyped as a “woman artist” and being treated different from her male contemporaries. Even when she joined the Impressionist cause, she was still unable to attend cafes with them as it would have been looked down upon and was forced to only meet with them privately or at exhibitions. Her good friend Louisine Havemeyer was a staunch feminist and put on an exhibition to support the women’s suffrage movement. Cassat contributed 18 of her paintings for the cause.

The Letter, by Mary Cassatt, 1890/91 (From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)
Mrs. Robert S. Cassatt, the Artist's Mother, by Mary Cassatt, ca. 1889 (From the collection of de Young Museum)

Although her recognition came slowly and her family never truly appreciated her contribution to the arts (she was always overshadowed by her famous railway executive older brother), Cassatt had a substantial impact on the art world and acted as an inspiration to female artists everywhere. You can explore more of her collection, here.

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- 7 Things You Didn't Know About Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

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