Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh, on May 22, 1844. She was born into a wealthy family. Her father, Robert Simpson Cassat (later Cassatt), was a successful stockbroker and land speculator, and her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family.
Cassatt’s family viewed travel as an integral part of her education. During her youth she spent 5 years in Europe and visited many of the capitals, including London, Paris, and Berlin. At the age of 15 Cassatt entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Her family displayed concern for her attendance as they felt she would be exposed to feminist ideas and bohemian behavior.
Cassatt decided to end her formal studies at the Academy due to the slow pace and patronizing attitudes of male students and teachers. After overcoming her father’s objections she moved to Paris in 1866, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones. Cassatt worked in a traditional manner, submitting works to the Salon with increasing frustration.
In 1877 she was invited by Edgar Degas to show her works with the Impressionists, a group that had begun their own series of independent exhibitions with much notoriety. The Impressionists (also known as the “Independents” or “Intransigents”) had no formal manifesto and varied considerably in subject matter and technique. They tended to prefer open air painting and the application of vibrant color in separate strokes with little pre-mixing. Degas had considerable influence on Cassatt. She became extremely proficient in the use of pastels, eventually creating many of her most important works in this medium. Degas also introduced her to etching, of which he was a recognized master.
Cassatt’s popularity continued to develop. Today she is well known for her tenderly observed, yet largely unsentimental paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child. 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.
She died on June 14, 1926 at Château de Beaufresne, near Paris, and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Théribus, France.
Quotes by Mary Cassatt:
• I think that if you shake the tree, you ought to be around when the fruit falls to pick it up.
• Why do people so love to wander? I think the civilized parts of the World will suffice for me in the future.
• I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.
• I hated conventional art. I began to live.