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Mary Cassatt

“I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.”

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About Mary Cassatt

In 1844, Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mary’s father, a well-to-do businessman, and her mother, wanted their children to see the world and have the best education. So when Mary was just seven, they moved their two daughters and three sons across the ocean to Europe. While in Europe, Mary learned to speak French and German. She also studied drawing and music.
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By the time Mary was sixteen, she knew she wanted to be an artist and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. At that time, girls were supposed to think of art as a hobby, not as a job. Mary, however, was determined to be a professional artist. Women at the Academy took many of the same classes as men, but they were not allowed to study nude models, which was important for learning to draw the body. They were also encouraged to stick to certain subject matter like still life and portraits. Mary was bored with her courses and frustrated that she didn’t have the same opportunities as her male classmates. She decided that the only thing to do was to move back to Europe and study the great artists of the past first hand. It took Mary a little while to convince her father to support her decision. But in 1865, she left for Paris.
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In Paris, Mary visited museums and copied works that she saw there. She also submitted paintings to the Paris Salon, a very important show that happened every year. Mary was one of the few women to have their work accepted to the Salon, but she wasn’t much interested in the art she saw there, which seemed boring and old-fashioned to her. She wanted to make art that was different. She became friends with another artist named Edgar Degas, who felt the same way. Degas introduced her to a group that called themselves the Impressionists. Now, these were Mary’s kind of artists! They were breaking all the rules.
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Mary showed her work with the Impressionists for seven years. Her painting during this time used loose brush strokes, bright colors, and patterns. She also experimented with using pastels, a kind of soft, chalky crayon. Mary’s pictures were mostly of people in everyday settings doing everyday things, such as reading, drinking tea, or going to the theater. Mothers and children became one of Mary’s most common themes. In the 1890s, Mary found a new inspiration in Japanese prints. She liked the way they used strong outlines and made space look flat and started making her own prints in a similar style.
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In addition to her own work, Mary helped some of her friends, like Louisine Havermeyer, in America build important art collections and offered advice to younger artists too. As she got older, Mary’s eyesight began to fail and by 1915, she was totally blind. Mary couldn’t make art anymore, but she continued to support the fight for women’s rights and independence!
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Licensed Images Information

The Fitting, 1891 | Drypoint and aquatint printed in color on faded white textured wove paper | 10 x 14 ¾ inches | Private Collection
Five O’Clock Tea, 1879 | Oil on canvas | 25 ½ x 36 ½ inches | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, 1880 | Oil on canvas | 26 x 37 inches | Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Breakfast in Bed, 1897 | Oil on canvas | 25 5/8 x 29 inches | Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
In the Loge, 1878 | Oil on canvas | 32 x 26 inches | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Keyword:
Impressionist

In the 1900s, the Paris Salon, favored paintings about history and mythology, preferred darker colors, and wanted the surfaces of painters’ canvases to be perfectly flat and smooth. A small group of artists, who called themselves Impressionists, had different ideas in mind! Although they all had their own ways of doing things, the Impressionists had some big things in common. They were all interested in making pictures that captured the feeling or “impression” of what they saw. They used bright colors, quick brush strokes, and other tricks of the eye to suggest light and movement. Many of them painted scenes of everyday life—people, cafes, boulevards, shops, theaters, parks, and gardens. They were also known for painting en plein aire, meaning that they took their easels outside and painted right on the spot!

Activities and Questions

  • Have someone you know be your model. Draw them doing something at home.
  • Make a picture en plein aire! Take a pad of paper and crayons or colored pencils outside and draw what you see.
  • Try to make a painting using short, fast brushstrokes. Does it look the same from far away as it does up close?
  • Who says you need to stay in the lines and use certain colors? Draw an outline of a picture or take a page from a coloring book. Now break the rules! Color outside the lines, invent your own way of coloring, or use surprising colors.
  • Find a picture of a Japanese print. Create an image in the same style.
  • How did Mary Cassatt break the rules? Is it always okay to break rules? When is it okay and when is it not?
  • How do you think people might have reacted to the work of Impressionists like Mary Cassatt when they first saw it? How would you react to seeing something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before?[/toggle]