Mary Cassatt
(1844 - 1926)
Artist Biography

The Impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt is best known for her mother and child compositions.


Born in 1844 in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, she was recognized by the turn of the century as one of the preeminent painters both of her native country and of France, which she made her permanent home in 1875.

She spent her childhood in Pennsylvania, and then lived with her mother in Europe from 1851 until 1858, studying in a number of cities including Paris, Parma, and Seville. She returned to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1861 to 1865 and in 1866 went back to France, which she decided was best suited for her professional goals. There she spent much time studying works by artists living and deceased, and painted with Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Degas. Her first public success came at the Salon of 1868 with a painting praised by a New York Times critic for its "vigor of treatment and fine qualities of color". Cassatt continued to exhibit at the Salon through the mid- 1870s, and attracted the attention of Edgar Degas, who invited her to join the artists dedicated to the "new painting", the Impressionists.

At this time she abandoned the somber palette and traditional subject matter of the Academic style in favor of the light- filled modern life compositions favored by her colleagues, among them Monet, Renoir, and Morisot. She quickly adopted impressionist techniques of applying paint rapidly from a bright palette. Cassatt developed her own subject matter, using her family members as models because her lifestyle, with aging parents, was much more confined than that of the male Impressionists who were able to spend time in cafes and paint subjects of society life. From 1879 to 1886 she was one of only three women to exhibit with the Impressionists, and the only American woman.

In 1878, at the request of Julian Weir, she sent two of her paintings to him in America for exhibition with the Society of American Artists. These paintings were among the first Impressionist works to be shown in America. However, she received much more attention in France than she ever did in the United States. While some critics were perplexed by the sketchy quality of her paint handling and the bold colors of the works Cassatt showed at the Impressionist exhibition of 1879, by 1881 she was almost uniformly praised, with two critics citing her work as the highlight of that year's exhibition.

Cassatt first displayed pictures of the mother and child theme for which she is best known in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. Though a sensitive painter of women and even the occasional male subject, Cassatt achieved her greatest success in the depiction of maternity. She elevated the genre from the realm of the sentimental or anecdotal through a careful attention to naturalistic pose and gesture, to the exchange of gazes between mother and child, and with the use of animated brush strokes and bright tones.

After the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, Cassatt began to experiment more widely, transforming her imagery with references to Old Master Madonna and Child paintings as well as Japanese prints. Her experiments with printmaking at this time resulted in one of the great graphic monuments of the nineteenth century: the set of ten color prints first shown at Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1891. Gradually she abandoned Impressionist work for paintings that emphasized shapes and forms. She did a series of color prints that combined drypoint, etching, and aquatint by studying Japanese woodblock techniques. From 1890, she had her own printing press at her home.