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Mary Cassatt The Grand Dame of Impressionist Artists

Mary Cassatt The Grand Dame of Impressionist Artists

“There's only one thing in life for a woman;

it's to be a mother... A woman artist must be...

capable of making primary sacrifices.”
 Mary Cassatt

So ironic since Mary had no children and never married.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Pennsylvania, but 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 an emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children. She was described by Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of "les trois grandes dames" (3 grand Ladies) of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot.


Tea by Mary Cassatt, 1880, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926), born in Pennsylvania and spent her early years traveling with her family in France and Germany. Although her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the early age of 15.  Part of her parents' concern may have been Cassatt's exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behavior of some of the male students. Although about 20 percent of the students were female, most viewed art as a socially valuable skill; few of them were determined, as Cassatt was, to make art their career.  She continued her studies from 1861 through 1865, the duration of the American Civil War. Among her fellow students was Thomas Eakins, who later became the director of the Academy.

Self Portrait 1878 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Discouraged and unhappy with the lessons and the chauvinistic attitude of the male professors and students Mary decided to study the old masters on her own. Female students could not use live models, until somewhat later, and the principal training was primarily drawing from casts.

 When Cassatt decided to end her studies, no degree was granted. Despite her father's objections, she moved to Paris in 1866, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones. Since women could not yet attend the École des Beaux-Arts, Cassatt applied to study privately with masters from the school and was accepted to study with Jean-Léon Gérôme, a highly regarded teacher known for his hyper-realistic technique and his depiction of exotic subjects. Cassatt augmented her artistic training with daily copying in the Louvre, obtaining the required permit, which was necessary to control the "copyists," usually low-paid women, who daily filled the museum to paint copies for sale. The museum also served as a social place for Frenchmen and American female students, who, like Cassatt, were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized. One famous couple met this way In this manner, fellow artist and friend Elizabeth Jane Gardner met and married famed academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Mandolin Player by Mary Cassatt 1868 Private Collection

In 1868, Cassatt’s painting The Mandolin Player was accepted at the Paris Salon, the first time her work was represented there. After three-and-a-half years in France, the Franco-Prussian War interrupted Cassatt’s studies and she returned to Philadelphia in the late summer of 1870.

Lilacs in the Window c. 1880 Private Collection

Cassatt returned to Europe in 1871 where she spent eight months in Parma, Italy, in 1872, studying the paintings of Correggio and Parmigianino and working with the advice of Carlo Raimondi, head of the department of engraving at the Parma Academy. In 1873, she visited Spain, Belgium, and Holland to study and copy the works of Velázquez, Rubens, and Hals. In June 1874, Cassatt settled in Paris, where she began to show regularly in the Salons, and where her parents and sister Lydia joined her in 1877.

Mary Cassatt Seated, Holding Cards painted by Edgar Degas c. 1880–84

In 1877 Edgar Degas invited her to create an impressionist painting . Mary was amazed and accepted the invitation. “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.”  Mary Cassatt

In 1877, Edgar Degas invited her to join the group of independent artists later known as the Impressionists. The only American officially associated with the group, Cassatt exhibited in four of their eight exhibitions, in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. Under their influence, Cassatt revised her technique, composition, and use of color and light, manifesting her admiration for the works of the French avant garde, especially Degas and Manet. Degas, her chief mentor, provided criticism of her work, offered advice on technique, and encouraged her experiments in printmaking. Like Degas, she was chiefly interested in figure compositions. During the late 1870s and early 1880s, the subjects of her works were her family (especially her sister Lydia), the theater, and the opera. Later she made a specialty of the mother and child theme, which she treated with warmth and naturalness in paintings, pastels, and prints.

Children Playing with a Cat c. 1908 Private collection

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. The two worked side-by-side for a while, and her draftsmanship gained considerable strength under his tutelage. He depicted her in a series of etchings recording their trips to the Louvre. Mary simplified her impressionist style around 1886. Mary was a role model of many artists in America, Europe and Canada.

The Boating Party by Mary Cassatt, 1893–94 National Gallery of Art, Washington

Cassatt's popular reputation is based on an extensive series of beautiful illustrated paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child. Some of these works depict her own relatives, friends, or clients, although in her later years she generally used professional models in compositions that are often reminiscent of Italian Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child. Failing eyesight severely curtailed Cassatt’s work after 1900. She gave up printmaking in 1901, and in 1904 stopped painting. At the turn of the 20th Century Cassatt’s role as an advisor to art collectors benefited many public and private collections in the United States. From her early days in Paris, she encouraged the collection of old masters and the French avant-garde. In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d'honneur in 1904. She spent most of the war years in Grasse and died in 1926 at her country home, Château de Beaufresne, at Mesnil-Theribus, Oise.

Be Sure to check out our counted cross stitch and counted needlepoint Patterns inspired by the works of Mary Cassatt with this link!



For Further Browsing and Reading:


Mary Cassatt: A Life 1998 by Nancy Mowll Mathews

Mary Cassatt: Impressionist Painter- 2007 by Lois Harris and Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter-2015 by Barbara Herkert and Gabi Swiatkowska


Mary Cassatt The Complete Works

The Art Story Mary Cassatt