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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Discover the path to success taken by famous American painter Mary Cassatt who became a key part of the French Impressionist movement. Here we examine her life and career in our extensive biography.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American painter. Although she was born in Pennsylvania (USA), she spent most of her life in France and Germany. She developed an interest in painting and pursued it as a profession at 15 years, but she was met with some challenges. Her father objected to her idea but she still pressed on with her passion. To talk about her career as a painter, we need to establish how her early life leads her to this path and her success in the world of painting.

Early Life

Cassatt was born in a family of wealthy parents; Robert Simpson Cassatt and Katherine Kelso Johnston. Robert was a land speculator and a stockbroker, while Katherine came from a banking family. Robert and Katherine bore seven children but lost two of theirs in infancy. The family first moved to France but later relocated to Germany. They relocated to Germany so that one son could study engineering there. While still in France, she was inspired by French artists such as Corot and Ingres. She likely met these artists at the Paris World's Fair of 1855. This year, Cassatt would later return to the USA to study fine arts. By the time she returned to the USA, she had learned some French and German.

Early Training

As earlier stated, her father objected to the idea of Cassatt studying fine arts in Pennsylvania. During this period, feminism was emerging. Her father may have wanted her daughter not to embrace the ideology. Feminism fought for the inclusion of the girl child in schools. Boys pursuing higher learning was prioritized more than the education of the girl child during this era. Twenty percent of girls were fine arts students in her class. Cassatt later lost patience with her teachers, who were predominantly male. She observed that the teachers taught very slowly in a patronizing way. Due to the way the teachers were instructing her, she ended her studies.

Travel around Europe and America

In 1866, she decided to move to Paris to pursue her passion. Needless to say, her father still objected to her decision. Despite his objections, she successfully moved to Paris with her mother and some family friends. In Paris, women were not allowed to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) institution. Cassatt was forced to enrol in a Master's program at the school privately. Her instructors were impressed with her painting skills and a highly regarded teacher was assigned for her. The teacher's name was Jean-Leon Gerome. He was known for painting exotic and sometimes scandalous paintings. However, people regarded his ability to look into picture details.

Still, in 1866, she joined another painting class taught by Charles Chaplin; a genre artist. In 1868, she met an art student called Thomas Couture. Thomas specialized in urban and romantic art. Both of them would travel to the countryside to get inspiration for their artwork. Their paintings mainly focused on peasants going about their usual activities. In 1866, she eventually got her big break when one of her paintings was accepted by a jury for the Paris Salon. Her painting was named, A Mandoline Player. The painting depicted a young girl playing the mandolin in a dark background. Around this time, many French artists tried to challenge some notions regarding art. They advocated for an individual to paint as they felt like, rather than letting academics dictate their painting style.

In 1870, she returned to the USA at the height of the Franco-Prussia War. Her father paid for her basic needs while in the country but refused to support her art supplies. She had brought with her two paintings. Cassatt then placed her paintings in a New York gallery. Many people appeared to admire her paintings but none of them purchased them. In 1871, she almost gave up on art to consider another different job entirely. However, she decided to travel to Chicago to try her luck once again with her paintings. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when some of her paintings were destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A few moments later, an archbishop from Pittsburgh was amazed by her works. He commissioned her paintings in Italy and she was able to pay for her stay in the USA and still fly.

Career Development

In 1871, she returned to Europe. The following year, her painting of, "Two Women Throwing Flowers during Carnival," was well received in the Salon and subsequently purchased. In Italy, she received the support and encouragement of the art community. She found her confidence. She travelled from Italy to Spain. In Spain, she created very many paintings. In 1873, she made an infamous painting titled, "Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla." The painting is at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. In 1874, she took up residence in France. Her sister Lydia joined her. In France, she became overly critical of the Salon art politics. She criticized the Salon's prioritization of modern art over independent art. In 1875, she noticed her painting was only approved once she painted a dark background in it. She noted that the artist did not have the freedom to paint as they wished. Also, she noticed that women's paintings were automatically dismissed.

In 1877, her entries were rejected by the Salon. During this challenging time in her career, she met a painter called Edgar Degas. Edgar was part of a group called, "The Impressionists," or "The Independents." This group preferred open painting, something critics did not take kindly. Apart from critics viewing the group as painting arbitrary paintings, they were also considered radical. Also in 1877, her parents and her sister Lydia joined her in Paris. She valued their companionship. To concentrate fully on her passion, she put aside the idea of marriage. She felt it would interfere with her profession. She would frequently paint her sister up until her death. Lydia's death devastated her and she did not put up paintings for a while.

In 1879, she officially joined the group's cause after learning that Edgar's paintings had been displayed at an art dealer's window. She also admired his pastels. Cassatt hoped for commercial success after selling her paintings to Parisians, who were considered sophisticated at that time. The Impressionist exhibit of 1879 was the most successful event to date. Each member of the club made a profit. Despite the success, the group was still criticized. Degas trained her on how to use pastels and the art of copper engraving. They worked together for a while. She remained active in the group until 1886. By this year, eleven of her works were displayed in art galleries.


She has inspired Canadian women artists who are members of a group called "Beaver Hall Group." In 1973, she was then inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. By 1996, her paintings sold at four million dollars. Google honoured her in 2009.


Cassatt died on June 14, 1926 at Château de Beaufresne near Paris. Before her death, she fell ill and her eyesight began to fail. She was completely blind by the time of her death. As a result of her failing eyesight, she had to stop painting.