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The Intimate World of Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was an American painter who is best known for her sensitive impressionistic paintings of mothers and children. Born in 1844 in what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of a wealthy businessman of French ancestry. Mary traveled extensively as a girl, visiting many of the great centers of art in Europe. At the age of 17, she enrolled in The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to study painting despite the objections of her family. Unhappy with the pace of instruction and the attitudes of her fellow students, she moved to Paris five years later to study the Great Masters on her own. Although her family provided for her basic needs, they did not support her in her artistic endeavors.

Mary returned to her home around 1870 due to the eruption of the Franco-Prussian war. But within a year, she began traveling Europe again in connection with a commission she received from the archbishop of Pittsburgh for a series of paintings based upon Italian works of art. She settled in France in 1875 and it remained her home for the rest of her life. Although Mary was not fond of the French people, she grew to tolerate them as the years went by.

In her early days in Paris, Mary sought acceptance by the Paris Salon with traditional subjects and compositions. But she grew increasingly restless with this type of art and became interested the work of independent artists. It was not until she glimpsed the pastels of Edouard Degas in an art dealer’s window, though, that she became inspired to abandon the values of the Salon and develop her own unique style.

Mary met Degas in 1874 and they soon became fast friends. Before long, Mary became part of the French Impressionist movement, an affiliation that lasted for over ten years. Mary’s work developed into an expression of ordinary moments. She is best known for her paintings of mothers and children in the course of their everyday life. Her use of soft, luminous colors gave her work an emotional depth and the informality of her compositions projected a feeling of intimacy. During this time Mary favored oils, although she was also very fond of pastels.

For a time during her impressionist work, Mary left her painting to care for her mother and sister who were ill. She resumed painting in the mid-1880s but upon her return, took a new approach, no longer identifying herself with the Impressionists. Now in her late 40s, she was inspired by the Japanese movement with its flat shapes and bold colors. She experimented with a variety of techniques and the use of pastels began to dominate her work.

At the turn of the 19th century, Mary became an advisor to several art dealers and played a key role in promoting the works of the Impressionists in the United States. In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d'Honneur in 1904.

The death of her brother in 1906 caused Mary to again take a reprieve from her work for six years during which time she traveled to Egypt. Although she was awed by the beauty of Egyptian art, the trip took a tragic turn when her other brother also died. When she again resumed painting, Mary did so at a slower pace due to various health problems. She was eventually forced to stop painting due to blindness caused by cataracts. Mary died in 1926 at the age of 82.

Since Mary’s paintings evoke tenderness and sensitivity, it is surprising to learn that the artist was considered to have an outspoken and “difficult” personality. Although she collaborated with bohemians and is believed to have had a series of stormy relationships, she continued to live a life of well-bred lady. Her persistence in pursuing a career as an artist in opposition to the wishes of her family and societal conventions of the times stands as a monument to her devotion for and love of art.

To see a gallery of the works of Mary Cassatt, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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