Mary Stevenson Cassatt: American Impressionist in Paris
Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 - 1926), one of America’s most successful female artists, was born in Allegheny City. You’ve probably never heard of it since it’s now part of the North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Yet, at the time, it was a rather happening place. Growing up, she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Having spent time abroad with her family, Cassatt regarded Europe as the epicenter of art and culture, so, by 1865, she convinced her parents to let her move to Paris to continue her education under Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 - 1904), Édouard Frère (1819 - 1886), and Paul Soyer (1823 - 1903). Her painting, The Mandolin Player (1872), was shown at the Paris Salon just one year later.
The Franco-Prussian War interrupted Cassatt’s studies after only three years, forcing her to return home in 1870. Not being able to stay away, she once again relocated to Europe shortly thereafter and, from 1871 to 1873, travelled around studying the works of different masters, including Correggio (1489 - 1534), Parmigianino (1503 - 1540), Velázquez (1599 - 1660), Rubens (1577 - 1640), and Hals (1582 - 1666). She finally settled in Paris in 1874, where she was able to regularly show her work at the Salon. It was one of her most formative years as an artist, in part because Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917) invited her to join the Impressionists, a collective of artists that proved to be an enduring and influential group. He was the one who encouraged Cassatt to experiment with printmaking, an art form she fell in love with.
The prestige of being the only American artist working with the iconic ensemble undoubtedly felt like an achievement, especially considering the fact that from1979 to 1886 she showed her work in four of their eight exhibitions, proving herself as one of their most significant members. With Degas taking her under his wing, much of her signature style emerged during this period. They bonded over their mutual love of figure compositions, but, with time, works depicting mother and child themes became her most identifying markers. And, because she created them in a style that was both natural and warm, she was able to find steady employment as a revered artist.
Maintaining a passion for the fine arts for most of her life, Cassatt became a well-known advocate for art collecting, serving as an advisor to many wealthy families looking to build up their collections by old masters. For example, the Havemeyer collection, most of which is currently housed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, contains works Cassatt personally helped Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer (1855 - 1929) select, having been friends with her before the latter was betrothed. Failing eyesight, however, severely limited Cassatt’s ability to work later on in life forcing her to give up printmaking in 1901 and painting by 1904.
Throughout the war years, she spent her time in Grasse, though she died in 1926 at her country home, Château de Beaufresne, at Mesnil-Theribus, Oise. Today, Mary Stevenson Cassatt is remembered as a successful female American Impressionist artist.
Note* All images are in the public domain.