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The Impressionist

This next post is dedicated to all the art lovers who might be following or sporadically reading my blog.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born 22 May 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh's North Side) to Robert Simpson and Katherine Kelso (nee Johnston) Cassatt. She was one of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Her father was a wealthy real estate and investment broker and her mother came from a banking family. Her early life reflected the high social standing into which she was born.

The family moved east, first living in Lancaster and then in Philadelphia where Mary began schooling at the age of 6. At that time, her studies focused on preparing her to be a proper wife and mother. She learned homemaking, embroidery, music, sketching and painting. During the 1850's, her family traveled to Europe since travel was considered integral to one's education and they had the means to do so. While in Europe they visited many of the capitals, such as London, Paris and Berlin.

When she returned to Philadelphia, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the age of 15, much to her family's objection. Part of their concern was that she might be exposed to feminist ideas and bohemian behavior. It was from that point on that Mary and her network of friends supported equal rights for the sexes.

She studied throughout the Civil War, but was increasingly frustrated by the slow pace and patronizing attitudes of her male counterparts. She later said: "There was no teaching" at the Academy. In 1866, she decided to study the old masters on her own and move to Paris. Her father was not happy and declared he would rather see his daughter dead than living abroad as a "bohemian." Regardless, she took private art lessons at the Louvre where she studied and copied the masterpieces. For two years she worked in relatively obscurity until one of her portraits was selected at the prestigious Paris Salon, an annual exhibition run by the French government.

In the summer of 1870, the Franco-Prussian War was starting. Reluctantly, Mary returned to Pennsylvania, living with her parents in Altoona. It was a radical change from the freedom she had experienced during her five years abroad. Her father refused to pay for any art supplies so, in order to earn the money, she tried to sell her paintings in New York and Chicago. Tragically, her art works that were in Chicago burned in the 1871 fire.

Her luck turned around when she received a commission from the Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Domenec of Pittsburgh for two copies of Correggio. With the money that was advanced to her, she left for Parma, Italy where the originals were located. She thus re-established her art career in Europe. Her status as an established artist was confirmed when her work was accepted for Paris Salon exhibitions in 1872, 1873 and 1874. Mary would travel and study in Italy, Belgium and Spain but would make Paris her home.

Mary began to grown restless and, no longer concerned about what was commercial, she began to experiment artistically. Her new works were initially met with criticism for the use of bright colors and unflattering accuracy of the subjects. One of her major influences was Edgar Degas. After viewing some of his work in an art dealer's window in 1875 she wrote to a friend saying: "I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

In 1877, when her works were rejected by the Salon, Edgar Degas invited her display her art with the Impressionists, a group that favored open air painting and the application of vibrant color in separate strokes with little pre-mixing, to allow the eye to merge the results in an "impressionistic" manner.

Edgar Degas

She soon developed a strong friendship with Degas. In 1879 she displayed 11 paintings with the Impressionists. It was a commercial and critical success and followed by exhibits in 1880 and 1881. Mary became famous for her portraits, particularly of mothers and children, unlike who fellow impressionists who preferred street scenes and landscapes. Her final exhibition with the Impressionists was in 1886, at which time she continued to experiment and evolve. Even though the Impressionist group would disband, she would remain in contact with members, such as Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. She would enter her most creative and productive period during the 1890's.

Mary would continue to paint through the turn of the century. Her art showed an increased sentimentality and her work was popular with critics and the public. However, she had stopped experimenting and breaking new ground. By 1910 she had lost most of her family and her fellow artists who once inspired were also dying. Following a trip to Egypt in that year, she returned exhausted and said that she felt overwhelmed by the ancient art she saw.

She was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia and cataracts in 1911. She did not slow down until 1914 when she was forced to stop painting as diabetes slowly stole her sight. She lived the final 11 years of her life in almost total blindness.

She died on 14 June 1926 at Château de Beaufresne, near Paris, and was buried in the family vault at Le Mesnil-Theribus, France.

Young Woman in a Black and Green Bonnet, c. 1890, Princeton University Art Museum
Young Girl at a Window (c. 1883–1884), National Gallery of Art
Young Mother Sewing(1900), Metropolitan Museum of Art


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