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Mary Cassatt was born May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania—now part of Pittsburgh. She was an American painter and printmaker. Her paintings often showed women with children in everyday scenes.
Mary was the daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman. Her family thought travel was an important part of education. When she was a child, she had her first drawing and music lessons in Europe where she also learned German and French. She saw paintings by many famous French artists at the Paris World’s Fair in 1855.
Although Mary’s parents did not want her to be a professional artist, she began to study art in earnest at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia when she was fifteen. She continued her studies while the United States was torn apart by the Civil War. In 1866, she returned to Europe to study. She worked hard to study painting. Women could not attend the art school in Paris, L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, so she asked one of masters from the school to tutor her privately. She got a permit to copy art in the Louvre Museum so she could improve her artistic techniques, and she traveled in Europe studying and copying old master paintings.
In 1874, she finally settled in Paris. Her work was shown at the annual government-sponsored exhibition called the Salon. In 1875, she discovered the pastel work of Edgar Degas in a gallery window. Mary later said, “I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She and Degas became friends and worked side by side. She learned a lot from his knowledge of art, especially his techniques with pastels, copper engraving, and draftsmanship. She developed a talent for working with pastels and used them to create many of her most important works. She experimented with different printmaking techniques like etching, aquatint, and drypoint.
Mary was the only American invited to join the Impressionist painters. She exhibited her work at Impressionist exhibitions in Paris and New York. She knew many other famous artists including Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, Berthe Morisot, and Camille Pissarro.
Some of her better-known works are Woman Reading, Five O’clock Tea, The Cup of Tea, Young Woman Sewing in a Garden, Children Playing on the Beach, and The Child’s Bath. In 2009, her Study for Young Mother Sewing, pastel on paper, was sold for $2,434,500.
In 1911, however, Mary was diagnosed with diabetes, rheumatism, neuralgia, and cataracts which weakened her eyesight and forced her to stop painting. She became interested in the women’s suffrage movement and sponsored an exhibit to support the cause.
In recognition of her contributions to the arts, France awarded her the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) in 1904. She died near Paris on June 14, 1926.