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Mary Cassatt
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Allegheny, Pennsylvania
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Chateau de Beaufresne, Mesnil-Théribus, Oise, France
One of the most eminent American artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mary Stevenson Cassatt worked in France for most of her career and became a leading member of the group known as the Impressionists. Cassatt began studying at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1861, and then prevailed upon her parents to let her go to Paris in 1866, where she studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) and Charles Chaplin (1825-1891), among others. Her first painting to be exhibited at the official Salon was The Mandolin Player (1868, private collection, on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art), in 1868. After living in Philadelphia during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the 1871 Paris Commune, Cassatt traveled to Parma, Italy, where she studied for eight months. The next autumn she traveled to Rome, went on to Seville for several months, then visited Antwerp and Holland, copying old master paintings. Returning to Paris in 1873, she met Louisine Elder (1855-1929) (later Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer); they became life-long friends. At Cassatt’s urging, Elder purchased a pastel by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the first of many purchases she would make with Cassatt’s guidance. Cassatt and Degas admired each other’s work, leading Degas in 1877 to invite Cassatt to exhibit with the group now known as the Impressionists. Cassatt agreed, and ended her practice of submitting works to the Salon. She exhibited eleven works in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, receiving many good reviews in Parisian journals. The critic Louis-Edmond Duranty (1833-1880) listed her along with Degas, Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Camille Pissarro (1831-1903) as the major artists in the exhibition. She participated in the 1880 and 1881 Impressionist exhibitions, but followed Degas in refusing to participate in the 1882 exhibition because of disagreements with other artists over who would be allowed to exhibit. They both participated in the last exhibition in 1886, which Cassatt helped to organize. And that year two of her paintings were included in the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel’s (1831-1922) exhibition of Impressionist art in New York City. Cassatt became an accomplished printmaker during the late 1870s. In 1879 Degas recruited Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914), Cassatt and Pissarro to contribute etchings to projected journal to be called Le Jour et la Nuit. Although the journal was never published, some of her finest prints are from this period. Another major influence on her art, particularly printmaking, was the exhibition of 725 Japanese ukiyo-e (“floating world”) woodcut prints and 421 illustrated books in Paris in 1890. It inspired her to create a set of ten color etchings, made with multiple (often three) etched plates, in the style of Japanese woodblock prints. Degas reputedly was so taken with one of the etchings, Woman Bathing (Breeskin (1979) 148), that he said, “I refuse to admit that a woman could be capable of drawing so well.” Cassatt exhibited the set of color etchings and four paintings at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in 1891. In the 1890s Cassatt continued to exhibit widely. She created a mural for the Women’s Building at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (now lost) on the theme of modern women harvesting the fruit of knowledge and science. A large solo exhibition of Cassatt’s work was mounted at Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1893, with paintings, pastels, prints and drawings, including 14 color prints; the gallery organized another solo exhibition of her works in New York City in 1895. Her now-successful career enabled her to purchase the Château de Beaufresne at Le Mesnil-Thérebus, Oise, 27 miles west of Paris, in 1893; thereafter it was her summer home. Cassatt traveled with her friends the Havemeyers to Italy and Spain in 1901 to help them add to their expanding art collection. Cassatt also assisted other American collectors, and many of the works purchased now form important parts of American museum collections. She declined awards offered by the Chicago Art Institute and the Pennsylvania Academy, but accepted membership in France’s Legion of Honor in 1904. She stopped etching in 1910, due to eye problems, and after unsuccessful cataract surgery stopped painting with oils by 1912 and gave up creating pastels a few years later. In 1914 she received a gold medal from the Pennsylvania Academy. After spending World War I on the French Riviera, she returned to the Château de Baufresne, where she died in 1926. Her friend Louisine Havemeyer helped to organize a retrospective exhibition of Cassatt’s works at the Pennsylvania Museum (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art) in 1927. (TNB 3/2011) Selected bibliography: Barter, Judith A. Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman. Exhibition catalog. New York: Art Institute of Chicago and Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Mathews, Nancy Mowll, ed. Mary Cassatt: a Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.