Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children. Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh. She was born into favorable circumstances: her father, Robert S. Cassatt, was a successful stockbroker, and her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family. Cassatt grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education; before she was ten years old she had already visited many of the capitals of Europe, including London, Paris, and Berlin. She was a first cousin to Robert Henri. Even though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, she began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1861-1865). Impatient with the slow pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study the old masters on her own, and in 1866 she moved to Paris. Returning to the United States at the outset of the Franco-Prussian War, Cassatt lived with her family, but art supplies and models were difficult to obtain in the small town. Her father continued to resist her chosen vocation, and paid for her basic needs, but not her art supplies.
She returned to Europe in 1871 when the Archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned her to paint copies of paintings in Italy, after which she traveled throughout Europe. fter studying independently in the major European museums, her style matured by 1872 and in Paris she studied with Camille Pissarro. The selection jury accepted her first painting for the Paris Salon in 1872. Salon critics claimed that her colors were too bright and that her portraits were too accurate to be flattering to the subjects. Upon seeing pastels by Edgar Degas in an art dealer's window, however, she knew she was not alone in her rebellion against the Salon. I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art, she wrote to a friend. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it. She met Degas in 1874, and he invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists and her work hung in the 1879 Impressionist show. An active member of the Impressionist circle until 1886, she remained friends with Degas and Berthe Morisot. As with Degas, Cassatt became extremely proficient in the use of pastels, eventually painting many of her most important works in this medium. Shortly after her triumphs with the Impressionists, Cassatt quit painting to care for her mother and sister, who fell ill after moving to Paris in 1877. Her sister died in 1882, but her mother regained her health, and Cassatt resumed painting by the mid-1880s. Her style evolved, and she moved away from impressionism to a simpler, more straightforward approach. By 1886, she no longer identified herself with any art movement and experimented with a variety of techniques. A series of rigorously drawn, tenderly observed, yet largely unsentimental paintings on the mother and child theme form the basis of her popular work.
In 1891, she exhibited a series of highly original colored drypoint and aquatint prints, including Woman Bathing and The Coiffure, inspired by the Japanese masters shown in Paris the year before. The 1890s were Cassatt's busiest and most creative time. She also became a role model for young American artists who sought her advice. Among them was Lucy A. Bacon, whom Cassatt introduced to Camille Pissarro. As the new century arrived, she served as an advisor to several major art collectors and stipulated that they eventually donate their purchases to American art museums. Although instrumental in advising the American collectors, recognition of her art came more slowly in the United States. Mary Cassatt's brother, Alexander Cassatt, (president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1899 until his death) died in 1906. After her brother's death, she did not paint until 1912. A trip to Egypt in 1910 impressed Cassatt with the beauty of its ancient art. Diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia, and cataracts in 1911, she did not slow down, but after 1914 she was forced to stop painting as she became almost blind. Nonetheless, she took up the cause of women's suffrage, and in 1915, she showed eighteen works in an exhibition supporting the movement. In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d'honneur in 1904. She died on June 14, 1926 at Château de Beaufresne, near Paris, and was buried in the family vault at Mesnil-Théribus, France.
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