Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist Master

According to Nancy M. Mathews, the life and artistry of Mary Cassatt, as compared to that of Degas or Gauguin, was firmly entrenched in all things American, due to being born in the state of Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844. As Mathews describes it, “even though Cassatt left her homeland for Paris, and chose to spend her days in the bohemian world of painters and models, dealers and collectors” in France during the blossoming years of the style known as French Impressionism, there “remained in her the sturdy thread of her ancestry” which dated back to the Revolutionary War when Pennsylvania was a place of “landed gentry and earnest public servants” (3). As proof of this, all one has to do is look at and admire any of Cassatt’s Impressionistic style paintings which although mostly rendered in France still bears the imprint of American culture and tradition.

Cassatt spent most of her early childhood in France and Germany with her parents but in 1860 relocated to Pennsylvania, where Mary became enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Five years later, Mary “convinced her parents to let her study in Paris, where she took private lessons from leading academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme” (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”). Like so many other American expatriates who went to France in the early 1860’s to study art, Cassatt spent much of her time attempting to copy the “Old Masters” like Rembrandt and David. Obviously, her efforts paid off handsomely because in 1868, her painting The Mandolin Player “was accepted at the Paris Salon, the first time her work was represented” by this influential art gallery.

In 1871 after spending a few years back in Pennsylvania, Cassatt returned to Europe and spent “eight months in Parma, Italy, studying the paintings of Correggio and Parmigianino and working with the advice of Carlo Raimondi” of the prestigious Parma Academy (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”). During this stretch in Europe, Cassatt traveled to countries like Spain, Belgium, and Holland, where she studied the paintings of Velázquez and Rubens. Then in 1874, Cassatt returned to the city of Paris and began to submit her paintings for exhibition at some of the city’s finest art galleries and salons. Three years later, French Impressionist master Edgar Degas “invited her to join a group of independent artists” that soon became known as the Impressionists which commenced the movement called Impressionism (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”).

As a result of Degas giving her advice on Impressionistic painting techniques, Cassatt set off on a lifelong pursuit to paint in the Impressionistic style with her main approach being figure composition (i.e., the human form). This resulted in numerous renderings, especially focusing upon her immediate family members, such as her sister Lydia who posed for many of Cassatt’s paintings in the 1870’s. Later on, Cassatt began to focus upon her thematic specialty–that of the “mother and child which she treated with warmth and naturalness in paintings, pastels, and prints (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”).

By the 1880’s, Cassatt was a well-known and respected Impressionistic painter and printmaker and because of her unique approach to the Impressionistic style, she became an art advisor and critic to both private collectors and national museums. In 1901, Cassatt accompanied art collectors Mr. and Mrs. Havemeyer on an extended trip to Italy and Spain. The end result of this collecting was the famous Havemeyer collection which today is on exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”). In 1904, due to her failing health and eyesight, Cassatt ended her forty year-long career as an Impressionistic painter. During the turbulent years of World War I, Cassat spent her days in Grasse, France, where she died in 1926 at her country home, the Château de Beaufresne at Mesnil-Theribus, Oise (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”).

As noted by Joanne Mattern, during the lifetime of Mary Cassatt, there did not exist many women painters, particularly in the United States. This was due to the idea that women “could not paint as well as men,” but Cassatt “showed the world that women could be great artists” (6). As previously pointed out, the main theme or motif of many of Cassatt’s Impressionism style paintings centered on the image of the mother and the child, usually during an intimate moment alone, such as when reading a book together, sitting in a meadow or field, eating and drinking, or rising from bed.

One of these paintings called Young Mother Sewing, rendered in 1900 as an oil on canvas and now part of the Havemeyer collection, best represents Cassatt’s thematic subject of a mother or a nursemaid caring for and tending to the needs of children or in some instances a single precocious child, such as shown in Young Mother Sewing with a young girl placing her elbows on the lap of her mother who is busily sewing away. As pointed out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this painting reflects Cassatt’s “affection for her nieces and nephews and her friends’ children” as well as “her concern with motherhood and child-rearing. As observed by Mrs. Havemeyer in 1901, Young Mother Sewing appears as if “the little child has just thrown herself against her mother’s knee, regardless of the result and oblivious” to her mother’s sewing. In response, the mother “simply draws back a bit and continues to sew” (“Mary Stevenson Cassatt”). In essence, the life of Mary Cassatt and her wonderful Impressionistic style paintings symbolize the expatriate American who left her native Pennsylvania in search of a greater artistic world which she found in the city of Paris, where Impressionism reigned supreme during the latter half of the 19th century and where Cassatt found her greatest fame as a female artist in a world dominated by men.


“Mary Stevenson Cassatt: 1844-1926.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 2013.

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Mathews, Nancy M. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1994.

Mattern, Joanne. Mary Cassatt. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company, 2005.