1844-1865 : Childhood and Early Education

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born on the 22nd May 1844 in Allegheny City, a small town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This date is recorded in the family and parish archives but the Public Records Office incorrectly state May 24th, 1843 and on the tomb May 22th 1843, only the year is wrong.
Mary Cassatt's family was American upper middle class, descended from French Huguenot emigrants who came to the US from Holland in 1662 after leaving France before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. They changed their name from Cossart to Cassatt in 1800.

Mary’s father Robert Simpson Cassatt (1806-1891) was a businessman with multiple interests. Her mother Katherine Kelso Johnson (1816-1895) came from a wealthy family and received an excellent education. She spoke French fluently. They went on to have seven children: Katherine and George died in infancy, Lydia Simpson Cassatt (1837-1882), Alexander Johnson Cassatt (1839-1906,) Robert Kelso Cassatt (1842-1855), Mary 91844-1926) and Joseph Gardner Cassatt (1849-1911).

Robert Cassatt and his childrenRobert Cassatt and his children, 1854, ©DR

The family moved house often, from Allegheny City to Pittsburg, then to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where they bought Hardwick - an 18th century country mansion. Mary began her formal education with a governess, Anita Preble, supplemented by musical and French lessons from her mother. She learned to ride and grew to love country life.

In November 1851 the Cassatts sailed from New York to France. They were in Paris during Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état (2nd December 1851) and discovered the charms of the capital, visiting its museums and expositions such as the International Exposition of Art and Industry in 1855. Their trip was motivated by a combination of educational opportunities for the children in excellent schools and medical care for Robert’s bone disorder. As the disease progressed, they moved to Heidelberg, Germany, then Darmstadt where they remained until the child’s death in 1855.

Mary CassattMary Cassatt, 1863, ©DR

Overwhelmed by grief the family moved back to the United States, again frequently relocating. The US Civil War (1861-1865) barely affected the Cassatt family. Alexander began his career with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Robert Cassatt opened a prosperous brokerage and investment firm - Cassatt and Co.

In 1860 Mary enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts of Philadelphia where she studied the rudiments of drawing and anatomy. This didn’t satisfy her. Her passion for painting increased, practicing on her own and with her friend Eliza Hadelman. She told her father of her ambition to go to Europe and “be an artist, a true artist” Despite her fathers’s anger and her mother’s anxiety she was allowed to return to Paris at the end of 1865.

Hadelman,, Lewis, Smith, Welsh, CassattE. Hadelman, I. Lewis, E. Smith, R. Welsh, Mary Cassatt, 1862, ©The Pennsylvnia Academy of the Fine Arts Archives.

1866-1876 : Studies in Europe

Mary settled in Paris with her American friends: Eliza Haldeman, Howard Robert, Earl Shin, Thomas Eakins and the engraver John Sartain. She studied with Charles Chaplin and took classes with Jean-Léon Gérôme but was very disappointed by their teaching. She copied masterpieces in the Louvre Museum, rubbing shoulders with other artists such as the Manet brothers, Fantin-Latour and Félix Bracquemond, then headed for the countryside outside Paris staying in Courances in 1867 and then Ecouen, where she studied with the ‘genre’ painters Pierre-Edouard Frère and Paul-Constant Soyer. In Villiers-le-Bel she was influenced by Thomas Couture then in 1868 she discovered the Barbizon colony of non-conformist outdoor landscape artists such as Millet, Rousseau and Daubigny.

Mary CassattMary Cassatt, 1867, ©DR

In 1867 she decided to submit a canvas to the prestigious annual Salon but this was rejected by the jury. Mary, very disappointed, attributed this to the conservative, establishment values then in fashion and the Salon’s notorious anti-feminism.

The Mandoline PlayerThe Mandoline Player, 1868, ©DR

A year later her painting The Mandoline Player signed Mary Stevenson was accepted and hung alongside her future artist friends: Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Bazille and Manet. Her work was rejected again by the Salon in 1869, Mary’s friend Eliza Haldman returned to the United States and a disconsolate Mary set off for a sketching trip in Savoie with a Miss Gordon, a family friend, followed by a winter trip to Rome 1869-1870, with her mother. In 1870 the Salon selected her Une paysanne de Fobello, a painting now lost.

The outbreak of the Franco –Prussian War necessitated a return to Pennsylvania which she found hard to bear. She made friends with John Sartain and his daughter Emily and painting and drawing with them helped lift her depression. Salvation came when the Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh offered her a commission to go to Palma and copy two of Correggio’s paintings for the new cathedral.

On the Balcony during the CarnavalOn the Balcony during the Carnaval, 1872, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

She and Emily arrived in Palma on 15th December 1871 and thanks to Sartain’s letters of recommendation were received warmly by the artist community, notably by the painter and engraver Carlo Raimondi. Mary enjoyed approval and celebrity and her canvas On the Balcony during the Carnaval was accepted by the 1872 Salon.

Torero and Young GirlTorero and Young Girl, 1873, The Clark Art Institute.

In October 1872 she set out for Madrid, Spain, to see the Rubens, Greco, Velázquez and Goya masterpieces in the Prado Museum. She visited Saville in the spring of 1873 then returned to Paris for the Salon, successfully entering her painting Torero and Young Girl. In June she went to the Netherlands in search of the works of Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, then to Anvers to meet the engraver Joseph-Gabriel Tourny.

After having spent the winter of 1874 in Rome, Mary returned to Paris and settled down near Place Pigalle. It was at this time that she established a lifelong friendship with Louisine Waldron Elder, the future Mrs. Havemeyer, who would become an unfailing supporter and promoter of the impressionists in the United States.

Her Portrait d’Ida was exhibited at the Salon in 1874 and was admired by Degas and Tourny. The following year she submitted two paintings: one was accepted and one refused on the grounds that it was too light colored. In 1876, the year of Mary Cassatt’s last participation in the Salon, this picture was accepted after she darkened the background. Both pictures have disappeared.

Portrait d'IdaPortrait of Madame Cordier, also known as Ida, 1874, ©DR

1877-1886 : The Impressionist Years

At the beginning of 1877, Degas visited Mary Cassatt’s studio with an invitation to show her work in Impressionist exhibitions. She happily accepted having become discontented with establishment art. Over the years Degas became Mary’s friend and confidant. Mary’s parents and sister Lydia moved to Paris, living at 13 Avenue Trudaine; her studio was in Rue Laval. She became friendly with Camille Pissarro.

On the 10th March, 1879 she took part in the fourth Impressionist exhibition, contributing three pastels, a drawing and seven paintings, including Woman Reading and Woman in a Loge. More a portraitist than a landscape artist, Mary found herself to have an affinity for Impressionist artists with her liking for working outdoors, her sense of color and artistic tastes. She became good friends with Berthe Morisot and the other American painters living in France: Whistler and Sargent.
When Mary was invited to contribute to a new art magazine, Le Jour et la Nuit (never actually published) she took up etching and printmaking.

Woman in a LogeWoman in a Loge, 1879, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
TeaTea, 1879-80, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.

At the fifth Impressionist exhibition of April 1880, she contributed etchings and eight paintings including Tea, introducing her signature theme of mother and child.

The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel started to represent her work amidst growing critical acclaim. For the sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881 she exhibited pastels and four paintings including Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly and Autumn.

Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at MarlyLydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, 1880, New York, The Metropolitan Mueum of Art. AutumnAutumn, 1880, Paris, Musée du Petit Palais.

In the summer, the Cassatts welcomed Mary’s brother Alexander’s family to Paris. They rented a villa in Louveciennes in the country by the Seine, enjoying the company of their nieces and nephews. Mary was able to paint and meet her artistic friends. She started advising Alexander on the acquisition of Impressionists works for his art collection, particularly Degas.
1882 and 1883 were dark years. Mary pulled out of the seventh Impressionist exhibition of 1882, her sister Lydia died on the 7th November and Eduard Manet died on the 30th April 1883..

Young Girl Arranging Her HairYoung Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.

Mary was greatly distressed by these successive bereavements but she continued to paint. In the following years she traveled to Spain with her mother, took part in the last Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, showing six paintings and a pastel, then exhibited two works in the first Impressionist art exhibition in New York organized by Durand-Ruel.

1887 - 1893 : The Engraving Years

At the beginning of 1887 the Cassatt family moved to an apartment with a studio at 10 Rue de Marignan so that Mary could combine working and taking care of her elderly parents. She bought a press for her studio and a series of drypoints were presented for the first time in the United States in an exhibition organized by Durand-Ruel in Boston.

In 1889 she participated in the first Paris exhibition of the society of painter-printmakers. Rich Americans began seeking her advice for their art collections, notably Louisine’s husband, Henry Osborne Havemeyer the “sugar king” of New York. She collaborated with Durand-Ruel who had just opened a gallery in New York.

The HavemeyersThe Havemeyers, 1889, ©Shelburne Museum Archives.

At the second exhibition of painter-printmakers, she showed a series of twelve drypoints, some acquatintes and a pastel. She was able to sell her prints to French and American collectors namely Gustave Larroumet, director of fine arts, George Lucas and Samuel P. Avery.
La Leçon made the cover of the first issue of L’Art dans les deux mondes, a magazine published by Durand-Ruel. With Degas and Berthe Morisot she visited the Japanese exhibition of color prints (more than 750) organized by the art dealer Siegfried Bing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Mary was enraptured and deeply impressed by the asceticism of the Japanese prints.

Interior of a Tramway Passing Bridge The Letter The Kiss
Interior of a Tramway Passing Bridge, 1890-91, ©DR The Letter, 1890-91, ©DR The Kiss, 1890-91, ©DR

In 1891 Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro were excluded from the third painter-printmaker exhibition as it was closed to non-French artists. They had to show their work in two independent exhibitions at Durand-Ruel’s Gallery. Mary continued to work on her series of portraits of women and children.

The Château de BachivillersThe Château de Bachivillers, ©DR

On the advice of Pissarro, she rented the Château de Bachivillers in the Oise for the summer. She received an unexpected commission for the Woman's Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. She was asked to paint a monumental allegory to the glory of Modern Woman. Mary Fairchild MacMonnies was to paint a facing mural on Primitive Woman. This was a project of Potter and Bertha Palmer who with the support of Louisine Havemeyer enthusiastically lobbied for the dissemination of art in the United States and female emancipation.

Primitive Woman / Modern WomanPrimitive Woman / Modern Woman, 1893, ©DR

After some hesitation at the scale of the commission, she accepted and set up her workshop in the huge woodshed near the château. She even had a ditch dug which was deep enough to enable her to manipulate and paint the triptych. Her mural disappeared after the exhibition and there remains only one painting referencing this monumental work - her canvas Young Woman Picking Fruit which was inspired by the central panel. Cassatt sent the mural to Chicago in 1893 but didn’t attend the inauguration.

Young Woman Picking FruitYoung Woman Picking Fruit, 1891, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art.

Her triptych received a lukewarm reception, like that of her first solo exhibition, - more than ninety works shown at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris.
Her father died in December 1891.

1894-1924 : An American in the Oise

Mary Cassatt spent the summers of 1891, 1892 and 1893 at Bachivillers, entertaining her family and working on her mural. Unfortunately, the owner married and his new wife insisted on living in the château herself. Very disappointed, Mary had to look for another country retreat.

The Château de Beaufresne in  Le Mesnil-ThéribusThe Château de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Théribus

In 1894 she bought the Château de Beaufresne in Mesnil-Théribus. She lived there mainly in the summer, until her death in 1926 (thirty years). No more need for summer rentals, she now owned her own country house where she could entertain family and friends and work as and when she desired. She didn’t much change the structure of Beaufresne but installed modern comforts (running water, central heating and bathrooms). She found the experience of trying to get the local workmen to satisfy her exigent requirements to be very frustrating. She laid out the park, planted fruit trees, hundreds of rose bushes and built a vegetable garden.

Miss Cassatt, as she was known by the inhabitants of Mesnil-Théribus, was seen as distant but very generous. She gave toys to the local children at Christmas and subsidized the salary of the village school mistress Mademoiselle Réty (later Madame Riché). According to her favorite model Reine Lefebvre, she suggested providing electricity to the village generated by the old windmill located on her property but this offer was unfortunately refused. She employed Mathilde Valet, her faithful Alsatian maid and companion, a chauffeur, Armand Delaporte, three gardeners and eight farmworkers.

Reine LefebvreReine Lefebvre, 1900, ©DR Mathilde ValletMathilde Vallet, 1914, ©Archive of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1895 Durand-Ruel organized Mary’s first solo exhibition in New York. This was a triumph with both critics and the public. In October her mother died.

Mary returned to the United States in January 1898 staying with her brother Joseph Gardner. She undertook about twenty commissioned portraits and exhibited her work at Durand-Ruel’s gallery and at the St. Botolph Club in Boston. She returned to France in the spring.

Mary CassattMary Cassatt, 1900, ©Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1901 she traveled to Italy with the Havemeyers playing the role of expert art advisor, as she had with her friends Alfred and Ada Pope when they were staying with her in Beaufresne. She became good friends with their daughter Theodate Pope, the renowned architect. Mary successfully liaised between her painter friends, the important art dealers and her rich American acquaintances such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Pierpont Morgan, John Davison Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, John Howard Whittemore and Potter Palmer, to further her goal of getting European art into American museums.

In 1902 Camille Mauclair published an article entitled “Miss Mary Cassatt; a painter of children”, in the magazine L’Art décoratif.

A CaresseA Caresse, 1896,
Washington D.C., National Museum of American Art.

In 1903 the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery exhibited Mary’s work for the first time, with eight paintings, and a Manet and a Morisot from her personal collection. She revisited the Netherlands to admire Rembrandt's work. She was named chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1904 and accepted the Norman Wait Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago for her painting A Carress, 1896.

Mary met the American banker James Stillman in 1906 who went on to own the largest collection of her work and invited Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer, to Beaufresne.
That same year tragedy struck again with the premature death of her brother Alexander.

In 1908 she exhibited some pastels at Vollard’s Gallery and had another solo exhibition at Durand-Ruels’. Later that year she made her last trip back to the US to support Louisine Havemeyer who had just lost her husband.
Depressed by these deaths Mary took an extensive trip to Turkey and Egypt with her brother Gardner’s family, in 1910 and 1911 then rented the Villa Angelotto in Grasse.

Mary Cassatt in EgyptMary Cassatt in Egypt, 1911, ©Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Cassatt in GrasseMary Cassatt in Grasse, 1913, ©Hill-Stead Museum Archives.

Mary made friends with the artist George Bidle and in 1913 and 1914 split her time between Le Mesnil-Théribus, Paris and Grasse, she was interviewed by the writer Achille Segard who published her first biography in 1913. Mary ceased painting in 1914 suffering from diabetes and cataracts and by 1921 she had become blind.

In 1915, Louisine Havemeyer organized an exhibition of works produced after 1900 at the Knoedler gallery in New York for the benefit of the suffragettes, a cause which she and Mary ardently supported and gave numerous lectures on her friend's career. Degas died in Paris on September 27, 1917.

Mary Cassatt agéeMary Cassatt in her Chateau de Beaufresne, 1925, ©Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The city of Philadelphia showered her with honorary distinctions and when the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts organized an exhibition entitled “Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Representative Modern Masters in 1920 a gallery was dedicated to her work.

An exhibition featuring her etchings was shown first in New York then at the Art Institute of Chicago. A misunderstanding about some of her etchings caused a temporary but traumatic rift with Louisine Havemeyer. At the end of her life, she became somewhat cantankerous, coping with loneliness, ill health, the loss of friends and loved ones and an estrangement from family.

She died on the 14th June aged eighty two in her Château de Beaufresne and was buried with her parents, her brother Robert and her sister Lydia in the family plot in the village cemetery of Le Mesnil-Théribus.

Source : This biography was compiled from Wendy Bellion's timeline, published in the catalog Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman (The Art Institute of Chicago, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1998)