The late 19th century was a significant period of artistic expression, particularly for the myriad of artists in Europe. It was during this time that world-renowned artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Edgar Degas captivated art connoisseurs with works of art that showcased their genius and their incredible talent.
However, the presiding art establishment of the time was overrun by inequality and gender biases. Female artists would often encounter difficulties when it came to training, traveling, trading their work, and gaining recognition for their brilliance. As challenging as the late 19th century was for female artists, there were still a handful of determined individuals who were able to break the proverbial mold and have successful careers as artists.
One of the women who went against social convention and lived on to become one of the greatest female artists in history is American painter Mary Stevenson Cassatt. Born on the 22nd day of May in 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is known today as the North Side of Pittsburgh. She was the daughter of Robert Simpson Cassatt, who was a wealthy stockbroker and land speculator, and his wife Katherine Kelso Johnston. She was one of seven siblings, although only five of them lived past infancy. One brother, Alexander, became president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Cassatt was a descendant of Jacques Cossart, who was a French Huguenot that came to New Amsterdam in 1662. She is also a distant cousin of renowned artist and teacher Robert Henri.
Growing up in a family that viewed travel as an integral part of education, Cassatt spent five years in Europe. She visited many of the capital cities, including Berlin, London, and Paris. Her first exposure to the arts occurred at the Paris World Fair in 1855. Only 11 years old, she left the fair admiring the works of early 19th century French artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet.
Despite her family’s objections, Cassatt was determined to become a professional artist. When she was 15 years old, she studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Her studies at the Academy lasted for four years, as she continued to study the arts even at the height of the American Civil War.
Cassatt’s insatiable desire to master the art, as well as the patronizing attitude towards female students at the Academy, led to her decision to end her studies and receive no degree for her education. She started studying the old masters on her own. After finally convincing her father to give her his permission, Cassatt and her mother moved to France in order to further her education.
Cassatt relocated to Paris in 1866 with her mother and a few family friends who acted as chaperones. At the time, women were not permitted to attend the École des Beaux-Arts. For this reason, she asked some of the masters from the school if they would let her study with them privately. One master, Jean-Léon Gérôme, agreed to teach her. Gérôme was a highly regarded teacher who was famous for his hyper-realistic technique and his depiction of unique and fascinating subjects.
The American painter also augmented her artistic training with daily visits to the Louvre, where she copied the works of other artists in order to master her technique. She even obtained the required permits, which were given out with the purpose of controlling copyists who filled the museum and painted copies that they would sell to the public.
Towards the end of 1866, Cassatt joined a painting class taught by noted genre artist Charles Chaplin. Two years later, she began studying with Thomas Couture, whose was a French history painter and teacher. In 1968, one of her paintings, A Mandolin Player, was accepted by selection jury for the Paris Salon. She and fellow artist Elizabeth Jane Gardner became the first American women to have their work exhibited at the Paris Salon. Cassatt would go on to submit her paintings to the Paris Salon for more than ten years.
At the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in the summer of 1870, Cassatt reluctantly went home to live with her parents in the United States. With her father continuing to disapprove of her chosen vocation, Cassatt found herself unable to pursue her true passion. She exhibited two of her paintings in a gallery in New York, where her work gained many admirers but no buyers.
Cassatt was determined to make an independent living, even if it meant giving up on her career as an artist. She lost her studio, and tore up her father’s portrait in utter frustration. She did not paint for over six weeks, and was adamant in her decision to touch a brush again until she is able to return to Europe. Cassatt went to Chicago to see if there were better opportunities for her there, but some of her early paintings were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Her luck changed when her paintings caught the eye of the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, who commissioned her to produce copies of the works of Correggio in Parma, Italy. She was given enough money to cover her travel expenses and part of her stay. With a few days, Cassatt set out for Europe along with fellow artist Emily Sartain.
Shortly after returning to Europe, Cassatt’s prospects were beginning to improve. Her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was well received in the 1872 Paris Salon, where her friend and fellow artist Elizabeth Jane Gardner became the first woman to be awarded a gold medal at the annual exhibit.
Cassatt gained much popularity in Parma, as she was supported and encouraged by the art community in the region. After finishing her commissioned work for the Archbishop of Pittsburgh, she travelled to Madrid and Seville, where her she painted Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla in 1873, as well as other works that had more of a Spanish influence. In 1874, Cassatt decided to return to France and take up residence there. She lived in an apartment with her sister Lydia, and opened a studio in Paris.
Cassatt and Sartain then had a falling out, as they had varying opinions regarding the politics of the Paris Salon. Sartain thought that Cassatt was too blunt with her criticism of some artists that exhibited their work and the conventional atmosphere that prevailed during the event. Sartain also did not like how outspoken and seemingly self-centered Cassatt was, and decided it was best to part ways with her.
In the years that followed, Cassatt’s disdain for the annual art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts became more and more pronounced. She observed that works produced by female artists were dismissed with contempt unless the artist had a friend or protector in the selection jury, but she refused to befriend the jurors in order to curry favor from them.
In 1875, Cassatt submitted two paintings to the Paris Salon, but one of them was rejected by the selection jury. Her cynicism towards the annual art exhibition by the Académie des Beaux-Arts grew the following year when the rejected painting, which Cassatt altered in order to have a darker background, was accepted in the 1876 Salon. She decided to move away from genre paintings and delve into more popular subjects in order to attract commissions from American socialites, but that proved to be an effort in futility.
For the first time since participating in the annual art exhibition, Cassatt found herself without an entry in the 1877 Paris Salon. Her two paintings were rejected by the selection jury, and the year marked a low point in the American artist’s storied career.
It was during this period that she was invited by renowned impressionist painter Edgar Degas to show her paintings with the Impressionists, which was a group of independent artists that held their own series of exhibitions, free from the control of the Paris Salon. The Impressionists displayed more variation in their individual techniques and choice of subjects, and preferred open air painting and the use of vibrant color in separate strokes.
Cassatt was open about her admiration for Degas and his pastels, which had made a powerful impression on her when she saw them in an art dealer’s window in 1875. She felt at ease with the Impressionists, and she joined their cause with sheer enthusiasm.
Degas had a profound influence on Cassatt, as the American painter became increasingly proficient in the use of pastels. Many of her most important works were created using this medium. Cassatt treasured her friendship with Degas, but learned not to expect too much from his temperamental and indecisive nature.
In 1911, Cassatt was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia, and cataracts, but she continued to be a relatively prolific artist. However, she was forced to stop painting in 1914 as her eyesight deteriorated. She never married, and remained a committed and active feminist until she died on June 14, 1926.