Allegheny (Pittsburgh, PA) USA, May 22nd 1844 – June 14th 1926, Le-Mesnil-Théribus (Oise)
Mary Cassatt is also known under the name of Mary Stevenson. She is the daughter of an investment banker and belongs to a very high class American family. She went to France with her parents in 1851. In Europe, she traveled in Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, etc. before coming back to Pennsylvania where, from 1861 to 1862, she learned the first steps of her art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Mary is disappointed. In 1865, with her mother, she came back to Paris where she met some fellow Americans, like Edward Roberts, Thomas Easkin (1844-1916) and a student friend Eliza Haldeman (1843-1910).
Eliza and Mary studied with Paul Constant Soyer then enrolled in the class of Charles Chaplin (1825-1891) where they learned the art of “portrait” (painted faces). They get their Louvre museum card of official copier. Mary Cassatt is also a student of the famous painter Jean Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). She pays a visit to Barbizon. It’s one of her first contacts with the impressionist art style.
She said: “Painting cannot be teach and we don’t need any lesson from a Master. Teaching of the museums is good enough”. Nevertheless, Mary followed the teaching of a lot of masters!
In 1862, Eliza and Mary arrived in Ecouen where, at the base of the Renaissance castle lived and worked a colony of painters. Being part of it are Pierre Edouard Frere and Paul Soyer, sharing their experience with younger artists. They stayed there for a full year, very close to Paul Soyer and his wife.
Mary Cassatt exhibited “La joueuse de mandoline” (the mandolin player) at the 1868 salon de Paris. It’s a slightly melancholic figure showing an influence of Jean Baptiste Corot (1796-1875). At that time, she signed Mary Stevenson. Then, she discovers the work of Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).
When the 1870 French-Prussian war began, she moved back to Pennsylvania. In 1871, she came back in Europe, visiting London, Paris, Torino and settled in Parma (Italy) where she studied Le Corrège (1489-1534) and developed her art of colors. There, she learned from Carlo Raimondi the art of engraving. Then she went to Spain and, at the Prado museum, the discovery of Rubens pushed her to visit Anvers where she met the engraver Joseph Tourny (1817-1880). From a Rubens study, she got the light exposure sensitivity and the taste for light colors.
The Salon de Paris Management agreed to exhibit the Mary Cassatt paintings, in 1872 “Sur le balcon durant le carnaval” (On the balcony during the carnaval), in 1873 “Le torero et la jeune fille” (The torero and the young lady), in 1874 “Ida” (Ida). This last painting attracted the attention of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) for this artist. In 1868, she continued to study at Villiers-le-Bel with Thomas Couture (1815-1879). In 1874, Mary Cassatt moved in Paris.
In 1875, the “Portrait of Lydia” (Lydia portrait) was rejected by the Salon de Paris Management then accepted after she made its background of a darker color. The same year, she met Edgar Degas. In 1877, he invited her to exhibit at the “Salon des Impressionnistes” (the Impressionists show). She was welcomed and exhibited there until 1882. She worked and exhibited with the greatest French Impressionist artists and contributed largely to their fame in the US.
During her lifetime, Mary Cassatt never had any success, either in New York or in Paris. Edgar Degas is the only one who appreciated her work. He used to say: “It’s not allowed for a woman to draw so well”. From time to time, he used Mary and her sister Lydia (1837-1882) as models. Under the request of Edgar Degas, she exhibited at the “Salon des Indépendants” (The independents show) from 1879 to 1881, then in 1886. About this, she said to Achille Segard (1872-1936) “I have joyously agreed to exhibit there. Finally, I could work with a total independence of mind without taking care of the taste of a jury. I already acknowledged who my masters were. I admired Monet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art”.
In 1886, Mary Cassatt began to be in business with the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and, in 1893, exhibited a lot of artworks in Paris. In 1903, an exhibition took place in the New York Paul Durand-Ruel gallery. She was working unceasingly on pastels, engraving and aqua-colors.
In 1904, she was decorated of the “Légion d’Honneur”. In 1910, she stopped doing engraving. In 1914, becoming practically blind, she stopped painting.
A short time before her death, she donated all of her art works to the City of Paris.
She died in the castle of Beaufresne she bought in 1894.
For further information, please read the book “L’Ecole d’Ecouen, une colonie de peintres au XIXéme siècle”, unfortunately only available in French for the time being (but we are working on it).