The Life of Mary Cassatt

Part I

Mary Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1844, into a wealthy family, whose ancestors were Dutch, Irish and Scottish. Her grandfather Dennis Cassatt took his family money and invested in land in West Virginia. Her father, Robert, started an investment business that became very successful in the Pittsburgh area working with raw materials such as cotton and farm produce. He married Katherine Johnston, a banker’s daughter. They had five children, with Mary being the youngest, and they grew up in a mansion with acres of woods, horses, dogs and farm animals to play with.

When Mary was four, they moved to Philadelphia for two years, and then traveled to Europe, where Mary went to school from age six to eleven. She attended classes both in French and German literature, in addition to drawing and music lessons. The family moved between Paris, London and Berlin.

Upon their return to Philadelphia, likely Mary attended boarding school for her middle school years. As soon as she turned sixteen, Mary signed up for winter classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Mary studied drawing and painting from casts and copying, as it was not permitted at that time for women to have life models.

She met Eliza Haldeman at school, and she became very close to her and later would become her closest companion in her first years in Europe.

After two years at the Academy, Mary Cassatt’s family moved away from Philadelphia to West Chester. Mary continued studying at the Academy, but she was studying at her own pace, copying the masters at the Philadelphia museum and reading. She also used the villagers near their estate as her own private models for her sketches and portraits.

Even though Mary Cassatt was of the proper age to start thinking about marriage, she knew that would end her artistic life. Her older sister still lived at home at age 28, and Mary followed her example to secure her independence from marriage.

For the next few years, Mary Cassatt enjoyed painting, riding horses and dreaming of one day being able to go to Paris and have a professional career as a painter.


Part II

Mary Cassatt’s father had always been against the idea of her becoming a painter or studying abroad. He expected his daughter to at least stay nearby.

When Mary turned twenty-one, she began planning her next steps. She wanted to become a painter, and for that she needed to go to Paris and get instruction from a recognized master. The family agreed Mary’s mother was going to accompany her to Paris. The two applied for passports in 1865, and arrived in Paris just in time for the Christmas season. Paris was decorated and festive and the two of them participated in the celebrations given by the American consul and American Chapel.

Mary’s mother probably stayed until the summer until Mary was in a familiar routine and she was comfortable with the trusted family she was boarding with.

Her best friend and painter, Eliza Haldeman from the Philadelphia Academy, also arrived in Paris with two other school friends. They all searched for teachers and applied for copy memberships at the Louvre to study the masters as part of their instructions. Mary was accepted to be a pupil of a very respectable and sought after teacher, Jean Leon Gerome, well known among American students. For the next years, Mary would be completely immersed in her social life at the Louvre, where she copied the masters and had private lessons with Gerome. She also took extra lessons with her friend Eliza Haldeman’s teacher, and together they attended painting sessions for students in the evenings. A main objective for them was to use the influence and reputation of their teachers to get their first paintings accepted in the well-known and prestigious Salon.

In February of 1867, Mary Cassatt exchanged teachers.  She had already been taking lessons with Eliza’s teacher, Charles Chaplin, and with his guidance, the two friends decided to take residence in the countryside. They went to Courances, not far from the Fontainebleau Forest, where they focused on painting outdoors, most of the time. Mary and Eliza’s paintings emphasized the simplicity of the countryside and the nobility of the peasants.  As they dedicated their paintings to this genre, a local teacher who was well known for this specific theme, accepted them as students. Paul Constant Soyer lived in the village and taught Americans to paint. For the next year and a half, Mary and Eliza participated in the social life among the American painters and busied themselves with dinners and picnics in their off-hours.


Part III

Mary Cassatt continued enjoying classes in the countryside for the next year and half. It was her intention to stay at least a few more years in France before returning home for a visit. By the spring of 1868, Mary Cassatt and her friend Eliza finally heard from the Salon. Both their paintings had been accepted. They were completely elated with the news. They arranged to go to Paris and spend time there until the exhibit and all the events were finished. They gave up their apartment in Ecouen and stayed in a hotel for several weeks.

A Mandolin Player is Mary’s earliest, surviving painting, and it established her as a figure painter.  Mary enjoyed this very early success in her career, but also later had to reconcile with the frustration of being rejected for many years by the Salon.

The two friends enjoyed this visit to Paris and even visited the infamous Mabille Gardens to enjoy the outdoor dance and watch the latest trend in cancan dancing.

In the end of May, Mary went back by herself to a small town near Ecouen.  She arranged to stay at the Villiers-le-Bel boarding school and study with a new teacher, named Thomas Couture, also well known among Americans. In the summer, she went back to Paris to visit Eliza and her brother Carsten, who had been a childhood crush.  If Cassatt had ever considered marriage, this would have been the opportunity to rethink it. Instead Carsten left with Eliza back to America and Mary had to adjust to a life without her close friend. Eliza was married a year later and their friendship became distant and cold.

Another year went by, and in the summer of 1870 Mary’s mother came to take her back to America.


Part IV

Mary Cassatt’s return home in 1870 was not a happy one. Very quickly, she missed all the activities of her life in Paris and was bored being with her family. There are letters from this period that reveal she did not get along with her brother Aleck’s new wife Lois Buchanan, who probably did not think Mary’s life style was a proper one.

As soon as she was able, she reconnected with her old school friends and convinced her sister Lydia to leave Altoona with her and go to Philadelphia. Her close friend, Emily Sartain, was there, and she enjoyed helping her settle in a new studio and find models.  Mary took two of her paintings to New York to an art dealer hoping to sell them and pay for her ticket back to Europe.

Her spring in Philadelphia went well, but her family convinced her to come back for the summer. They rented a house in the countryside near her brother Aleck and her disapproving sister in law. It was probably in this uncomfortable setting that Mary Cassatt decided she had to do something serious to improve her professional life. She went back to New York and took her two paintings to Chicago. There they drew the attention of the Catholic Bishop, who commissioned her to go to Italy and copy some Correggio paintings for the church. Her two paintings burned in the great Chicago fire of October 8, 1871, but the church offered her $300 to go to Italy and copy the Corraggio paintings. By December, Mary and Emily Sartain were on a steamer heading to Liverpool.

They immediately made their way to Italy and settled in Parma, where Mary would copy Correggio. In Parma, they met Signor Rossi, the director of the Academy, who gladly introduced them to the local art society of Parma. Their reception was very warm, and in a short period of time, Mary and Emily were acquainted with the cosmopolitan society, and they felt a sense of purpose as they worked. While there, Mary continued her own work, and by the spring of 1872, she shipped Pendant Le Carnival to Paris. The Salon accepted the painting and Mary was highly praised by all her teachers at the Parma Academy. They all wanted her to make Italy her permanent residence, but Mary decided it was time to move on. Emily Sartain went to Paris to visit with her brother, and Mary went to Spain.

Nancy Mowll Mathews writes in Mary Cassatt, A Life, “As soon as she left Parma however, the extraordinary combination of circumstances that brought her such approval and celebrity could never be re-created, even in subsequent trips to that small Italian city”.

Mary arrived in Madrid in September 1872. She lingered there for a while until she thought she had enjoyed all the great masters’ paintings in the museums. She then moved to Seville, where she stayed in a boarding house and made her way into the art society of Seville. Only six paintings of this period survive, although this is the time she painted the most. She hired models and dressed them in traditional local costumes. Again, one of her paintings, Torero And Young Girl, was accepted at the Paris Salon.  In 1873 Mary Cassatt left Seville and arrived in Paris, where she met her mother. The two traveled to the Netherlands, where Mary painted her mother’s portrait and studied Rubens. Mrs. Cassatt left for Philadelphia in October, and Mary moved to Rome, where she again studied the Italian masters. She had not sold paintings lately, and her financial situation was not good, even though the Salon accepted Ida in 1874. She thought it would be in her best interests to return to Paris, where the art market was still vibrant, concluding her life as a nomad.


Part V

By the fall of 1874 Mary Cassatt had a studio in Paris and her sister Lydia came for her first visit. The family agreed that Mary needed to be accompanied and chaperoned in Paris, and Lydia was happy to fulfill that family obligation and leave Philadelphia. This marks a very happy time for Mary and Lydia. For the first few years Lydia made trips back and forth from Philadelphia to Paris. She was eager to socialize and visit all the cultural places in Paris with Mary. Lydia also became a model for Mary’s paintings. Mary’s style of painting changed as she dedicated herself to becoming a very good portraitist. She targeted the American tourists who wanted to bring a souvenir home. She joined the circle of expatriate, wealthy Americans who she hoped to get commissions from.  Unfortunately, the Salon rejected two of her paintings at this time, and all of her social circles heard about it, making Mary feel humiliated. 

Luckily, right after her rejection, she was invited by Edouard Manet himself in 1877 to join the Impressionists. This marks the beginning of a life long friendship with the Impressionist painters. She did not meet with them at their usual café, Nouvelle Athenes, but she, as did Berthe Morisot, entertained her friends at her home.

Degas became a close friend who visited her studio on a regular basis, and even picked up a brush to make changes to her work. Her paintings became more colorful, and she focused more on painting children, mothers and the social life in Paris. She would go to visit friends, the theater or just stroll at the park carrying her sketchbook.

Girl in a Blue Armchair is a painting from this period that shows Mary’s drastic change to brighter colors in addition to the Impressionistic movement style of painting.

Lydia’s health had declined in 1876 preventing her of returning to Paris that fall. By 1878, their parents decided they all should move to Paris so that Lydia could be close to the best doctors and Mary was not living by herself.

This was a big change for Mary’s lifestyle and freedom. Now she had to give up a lot of her time to be with her family, who were experiencing loneliness and the changes of moving to a different culture. They found a bigger place for all of them to live together, and by 1879, her parents were able to witness firsthand their daughter’s first Impressionist exhibit. All the artists made a profit, and 16,000 visitors paid for tickets. Mary Cassatt got great reviews and was invited to participate in the Society of American Artists ‘ New York exhibit, which she spent the next six months preparing for.

By 1880, Mary decided to try printing. The Japanese print style had been very much admired by the Impressionists, and she decided to try her hand at this new technique. She spent most of her evenings sketching, and her day at Degas’s studio because he had all the printing equipment.

She produced stunning prints that she exhibited in the following years with pastels and oil paintings.

The art critics continuously praised her depiction of women, children and family life. By 1881, Mary was a well-established professional painter when Paul Durand Ruel, a very well known art dealer, proposed to represent her. She accepted and for the next twenty years they had a successful partnership.   


Part VI

For the next decade Mary Cassatt had to deal with serious work issues and sickness and death in her family.

Lydia, her sister died in 1883. Mary had hardly the chance to overcome her loss when her parents’ health began to decline.

In 1886, the Impressionists had another exhibit. Mary participated in organizing and financing it along with Degas and Morisot. The sales were successful, and the critics praised Mary again.

Mary’s art dealer was also showing her work in New York, where Impressionist style paintings were in demand.

For the next few years, Mary managed her work while she cared for her parents. Her father’s health took a turn for the worse at the end of the decade, and he passed away in 1891.

Right after her father’s death, Mary Cassatt was invited to paint a mural for the woman’s building at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The Cassatt's had been renting villas for the summer and Mary decided to paint this large commission at the Chateau of Bachilliers, where they had spent the previous summer. The studio was big enough to hold three very large canvases that together would form the mural called Modern Women. These paintings have not survived, but pictures of them show women picking together the fruit of knowledge from a tree. They have the simplicity of Mary’s prints, and the colors are vibrant.

Just as she finished that enormous project her first major exhibit in Paris opened. Almost one hundred works were installed at the Dur and Ruel Gallery for Mary’s retrospective exhibition.

Having kept herself so busy after her father’s death, Mary decided to slow down some and move away from Paris. After so many years of renting houses for the summer, Mary decided to buy a chateau in Beaufresne and renovate it. She kept an apartment in Paris, and she Mrs. Mathilde Vallet, their long time maid, running both places, so that Mary’s work was not interrupted. This marks the series of paintings done by the water featuring family members who came for visits from Philadelphia. She painted The Boating Party in 1894, a well-known painting depicting bright colors by the sea and a mother holding a child in a boat.

Mary’s mother died the following year, leaving Mary alone for the rest of her life.

Her success and sales in New York continued, and she decided it was time to return to her birthplace for a visit.

In 1898 Mary arrived in New York, after a very short visit to Philadelphia, to see her brother and grown children. She was warmly received in the art world, and her patrons immediately requested commissions to paint their children and family.

She also went to Boston to visit the Sears family who she had been acquainted with through work in Paris. They also commissioned a portrait of Mrs. Sarah Choate Sears, an artist herself, and collector.  This was a business trip to ensure her sales in New York, and after a few months away from Paris, she was ready to go back to her beloved home in Beaufresne.


Part VII

As the new century rolled in, Mary Cassatt at age fifty-five realize that her art generation was in decline, as they made room for the Modernists who were gaining recognition.

In 1901 Mary was invited by her old friends the Havemeyers to come along with them to Italy and Spain and help them with her expertise to find old masters paintings for their art collection. Mary agreed and thought this would be a good opportunity to rekindle her close friendship with American friend Louisine Havemeyers.  The trip lasted about ten months and they were successful in finding old masters and purchasing El Greco’s that were obscured at the time. This great collection resides in the United Stated and Mary is remembered in Louisine’s memoirs that were published in 1930.

Upon her return, Mary went straight to work for an exhibit organized by Durand-Ruel in 1903 in New York. Her paintings show that Mary was inspired again by the old masters on her visit to Italy and Spain. Her subjects were richly dressed and they looked grand. Her next years were very productive.

As Mary reached her sixtieth birthday, she and her Brother Gardner’s family decided to take a long trip to Egypt. This trip was to take several months, but as they had just started, her brother became very ill. Nobody really new what was the cause of his ailment. Until he was taken away to proper care, Mary’s health also declined in this period. She went home and was diagnosed with untreated diabetes. She was unable to work for a long time until her health improved. She worked steadily in the mornings and occupied the rest of her day with friends such as Renoir who was her close neighbor.

Mary also was involved in donating her work to the suffrage cause in the USA through her friend Louisine Havemeyer. Because oh her own families lack of support back in the USA for the suffrages cause, Mary decided that she didn’t want to leave her paintings to Aleck’s family. She sold all the paintings she had at home and changed her will to benefit only Gardner’s’ children.  

In the last years of her life Mary suffered of rheumatism and cataracts that had to be treated with surgeries. She never painted again and died of complications of diabetes in January 14, 1926.