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Artist Biography

Mary Cassatt has the distinction of being the most renowned female American Impressionist, famous for her paintings of women and children. Growing up, she was afforded the luxuries of extended travel across Europe. Her interest in art was stoked by the 1855 Worlds fair in Paris, where works of Courbet, Ingres, Delacroix, and Pisarro were on display. Cassatt’s mother was a well educated and worldly woman who would exert an important influence over her daughter’s artistic career, though Mary’s father maintained a skeptical view of painting as a profession. Mary, on the other hand, was very serious about her art; she began her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the age of fifteen. Finding the courses limiting for females, who were prevented from sketching live models, Cassatt moved to Paris with her mother in 1866 to study and copy from the masterpieces in the Louvre. Although unable to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she took independent lessons with Jean-Leon Gerome, Charles Chaplin, and Thomas Couture—all of whom helped to shape her early style.

Cassatt returned to Pennsylvania in 1870, but found the lack of opportunities and her father’s negativity discouraging, and so returned to Europe in 1871 to complete a commission copying Correggios for the Archbishop of Pittsburgh. Her travels took her to Madrid and Seville before she settled in an apartment in Paris with her sister in 1874. Though she participated in the Salons throughout the 1870s, she was troubled by the politics, conservatism, and blatant sexism she encountered when dealing with the selection committee. Cassatt was able to abandon her futile struggle with the establishment when Edgar Degas invited her to join the Impressionists in 1877; the only other woman to be included was the well-respected Berthe Morisot. Degas’ influence led her to explore new media: pastels and etching, and her style in general became more spontaneous, with a brighter palette, and like any good Impressionist she took to painting outdoors.

The famous 1879 exhibition of Impressionism included eleven of Cassatt’s works, which were well received. She exhibited in Paris in 1880, 1881 and then in 1886 at the first Impressionist show in America. The artist found inspiration from Old Master compositions, her Impressionist colleagues, and fashionable Japanese woodblock prints. In the early twentieth century, her declining health prevented her from continuing her painting, but she became active in women’s causes like the suffrage movement. Though Paris became her permanent home as of 1875, she continued to play a dynamic role in the development of American art institutions: particularly helping her friend Louise Havemeyer amass a stunning collection of Impressionist art which is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Works of all media by Mary Cassatt can be found in major collections at home and abroad, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery and The White House in Washington, DC.