Mary Cassatt’s paintings caught the eye of Degas. He brought her into the Impressionist inner circle…. Read her incredible story

Cassatt was considered during her lifetime as one of the greatest American artists. She lived in Paris for more than sixty years. She was the only American painter to belong to the Impressionism art movement.

Why is she less known than her male counterparts?

Mary Cassatt’s paintings – Self Portrait
Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Cassatt was an American painter. She rebelled against all expectations set for her as a woman in the 19th century.

Cassatt Leaves America for Paris

Mary Cassatt’s paintings – sleeping baby
Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite her parents’ objections, Cassatt studyied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia at the age 15.

However, she felt frustrated with the patronizing attitudes of the male students and teachers towards her.

The art academy even banned her from participating in drawing lessons with live models. Being a female, she was only permitted to draw inanimate objects.

Fed up, Cassatt left America and travelled to liberal-minded Paris together with her mother. She started studying privately with the masters from the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Woman Reading In a Garden 1880
Mary Cassatt Paintings [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons

About Paris Cassat says: “women did not have to fight for recognition if they did serious work.”

When Cassatt permanently moved to Paris in 1874, (at the age of 30) she found conventional art boring.

Cassatt Joins the Impressionists

Degas noticed Mary Cassatt’s paintings and greatly admired them. The two became firm friends. He invited her to exhibit her paintings together with the other impressionists.

I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art – I began to live.” Quote Cassatt

Mary Cassatt began a long period of participation in the Impressionism art movement together with Monet, Degas, Renoir and others. She also became a leading figure in the impressionist circle. Her peers and critics highly praised her paintings..

Degas and Cassatt’s Relationship

During this period Cassatt and Degas became very close friends and they began a long period of artistic collaboration. Neither Cassatt or Degas ever married. There is speculation that perhaps they were also romantically involved.

Degas and Cassatt had neighbouring art studio’s in Montmartre and frequently worked side by side, encouraging and advising each other.

Edgar Degas study of Mary Cassatt / a charcoal and pastel on gray wove paper.
Edgar Degas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

She also socialized with other fellow artists in this circle. Camille Pissarro, for example, was an older member of the group and Cassatt’s mentor.

Cassatt was instrumental in introducing impressionism to the American network of patrons through her family connections and personal friendships.

Portrait of her sister: Lydia Cassatt – Mary Cassatt Paintings
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints & Cassatt

Around the 1850s, the Western world were gaining access to the Eastern “Oriental” philosophies, culture & arts. In particular, the ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints became extremely popular.

The Japanese woodblock prints were also admired by the impressionists and they collected these prints and studied them. Many even adopted ukiyo-e elements into their own paintings.

After Cassatt saw an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts in Paris, she decided to create a series of prints herself. She adapted the ukiyo-e art form and introduced everyday scenes of French women, for example, a woman caring for a child, trying on a dress or just sealing an envelope.

So why is Cassatt less famous than her male counterparts?

Firstly, Mary Cassatt was a woman! As a woman in those times, she felt dismissed and patronized as an artist.

Degas sarcastically says after viewing one of her incredible paintings: “I don’t believe a woman could draw that well. Did you really do this?”

Secondly, Mary Cassatt was an American painter who painted in a French impressionist style. Curators were always unsure whether to hang her in the American or European sections, leaving her work in limbo.

Thirdly, Mary Cassatt’s paintings were frequently ignored by critics who couldn’t see beyond her ‘feminine’ subject matter.

Fourthly, art historians would later dismiss her as a ‘secondary’ figure in the impressionism art movement. This couldn’t be further from the truth!!!

You can view Mary Cassatt’s paintings in many prestigious museums all over the world.

In Paris you can find her paintings in the highly acclaimed Musée d’Orsay and the Petit Palais together with all the other esteemed Impressionists.

Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you love reading historical fiction, I highly recommend “I Always Loved You”  by Oliveira. This historical fiction book focuses on the relationship of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.  Press here for my review.

​Read About The Female Impressionists Forgotten ​By the Art Historians


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