Becoming an artist in the 19th century was extremely difficult for a woman. Society at that time had a conservative understanding of the role of women. Mary Cassatt was able to break through this discrimination. She had lived in Paris with her family as a child and was impressed by all the art she had seen there. After they returned to America, she surprised her parents by her wish to become an artist.
Although her family objected to her ambition, they allowed her to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At the age of 22, she returned to Paris and began to copy the old masters in the Louvre and other museums.
Mary Cassatt became friends with Edgar Degas, a member of the group known as the Impressionists who were refused by the Salon and had established their own show, the Salon des Refuses. Edgar Degas introduced her to his friends Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and other Impressionist painters.
Under the influence of Degas and the other Impressionists, Mary Cassatt changed her painting style and began to paint people and use light colors. Her favorite subjects were children and women and children in everyday scenes.
Mary Cassatt’s artistic breakthrough came in 1892 when she received a commission to paint a mural for the Woman’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. The painting was lost after the fair and has not been seen since. In the same year, the judges at the Salon accepted one of her paintings for exhibition. The painting, called Two Women Throwing Flowers during Carnival was purchased after being well received by Salon patrons.
Mary Cassatt was unique in that she was a female artist who succeeded in a predominantly male profession in the nineteenth century. She was also the only American invited to exhibit with the Impressionists whose cause was to portray modern life.
After 1886, Cassatt no longer identified herself with any art movement and experimented with a variety of techniques. At the turn of the century, she concentrated almost entirely on mother-and-child subjects.
Mary Cassatt influenced Impressionism not only as an artist. She often bought the paintings of her friends and promoted the works of Impressionists in the USA, largely through her brother Alexander, who was President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. By persuading him to buy works by Manet , Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Degas and Pissarro, she made him the first important collector of such works in America.
Like Edgar Degas, Mary became afflicted with poor eyesight. After 1914 she was forced to stop painting as she became almost blind. She had also been diagnosed with diabetes, neuralgia, rheumatism and cataracts, but she refused to slow down.
In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Legion of Honor in 1904. As of 2005, her paintings have sold for as much as $2.87 million.
Mary Cassatt died in 1926 at her home outside of Paris.