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Mary Cassatt

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Mary Stevenson Cassatt was an American painter, who lived and worked in France as an important member of the Impressionist group, where she was the first foreigner to be admitted.  (Alfred Sisley, in spite of his British origin, was considered French).  She was a pupil of Camille Pissaro, and specialized in painting children.

Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania.  In 1861 she began to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, but in 1866 proclaimed her independence by leaving to paint in France.  

  • USA 1986.  Portrait of Mary Cassatt.  

USA 1986. Portrait of Mary Cassatt.

Scott # 2181

France 2006. Mary Cassatt. "Mother and Child", created 1886. Issued in a booklet of 10 self-adhesive stamps dedicated to the Impressionists.

During the childhood of the future artist, the family traveled in Europe, lived in France and Germany (1851-1855). During her 4-year stay in Europe Mary became fluent in French and German. Returning to Pennsylvania in 1855, the Cassatt family settled in Philadelphia. 

At the age of 15 Mary decided to become an artist and enrolled in 1861 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. She took art classes for 4 years (1861-65) and continued to pursue studies on her own. 

Soon she got frustrated with the education in the US. She felt she needed to study in Europe, her choice was Paris. Her mother supported her daughter’s desire. Since the Ecole des Beaux-Arts did not admit women, she (in 1866) studied for a short period in the studio of Charles Chaplin, then took private lessons from Jean-Léon Gérôme. In addition, Cassatt registered among the copyists at the Louvre. 

In 1868 her painting was exhibited for the 1st time in the Salon. The most important influence on Cassatt in the years before 1875 was exercised by Edouard Manet, although he did not accept students, she saw his works and they were much discussed both by painters and art critics. By 1872, after studying in the major museums of Europe, her style began to mature, and she settled in Paris. 

Mary Cassatt, painted by the French Impressionist Edgar Degas.

In 1877 Cassatt met Degas, who advised her to join the Impressionists. “I accepted with joy. Now I could work with absolute independence without considering the opinion of a jury. I had already recognized who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet, and Degas. I took leave of conventional art. I began to live.” A close friendship with Degas began, which lasted until Degas’ death in 1917. 

In 1880 Degas painted this wonderful portrait of Ms Cassatt, oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884. The painting belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. 

Degas and Renoir greatly influenced her style of painting, and for a long time Cassatt was believed to be a pupil of Degas, but although they had a mutual influence on each other's work, their relationship was absolutely platonic. Once, on seeing some of Mary’s work, Degas said that he would not have admitted that a woman could draw so well. 

  • Mary Cassatt, painted by Edgar Degas. 

One of the works she showed was "The Cup of Tea" (1879, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a portrait of her sister Lydia in luminescent pinks. Beginning in 1882 Cassatt's style took a new turn. Mothers and children in intimate relationship and domestic settings became her chosen theme. Her portraits were not commissioned; instead, she used members of her own family as subjects.  Below are shown a selection of her paintings as issued on stamps.  

USA 1998. Mary Cassatt. "Breakfast in Bed" (from the sheet "Four Centuries of American Art").

Scott # 3236o

USA 1966. Mary Cassatt. "The Boating Party".

Scott # 1322

Rwanda 1975. Mary Cassatt. "The Bath".

Scott # 665

France awarded Cassatt the Legion of Honour in 1904; although she had been instrumental in advising the first American collectors of Impressionist works, recognition came more slowly in the United States. Owing to the loss of her eyesight, she was unable to paint after 1914. 

USA 2003. Mary Cassat. Booklet pane of four paintings by Cassat.

Scott # 3804-3807

Monaco 1977. Mary Cassatt. "Motherhood".

Scott # 1060

United Nations Geneva 1989. Mary Cassatt. Painting illustrating Article 3 of the Declaration of Human Rights.  "Young Mother with her Child".

Scott # 180

Mary Cassatt. Commercially used cover from the US to Denmark 2003, franked with all four stamps from the booklet pane 2003.

Yugoslavia 1991. Mary Cassatt. "Girl with Cat".

Cassatt’s last years were overshadowed with the loss of close people, relatives and friends. She suffered from many diseases, like diabetes and had cataracts on both eyes, which eventually reduced her to near blindness. 

She lived in solitude at the Château de Beaufresne, accompanied only by her longtime housekeeper, Mathilde Valet, or in the south of France. At the outbreak of WWI Cassatt had to give up painting entirely. 

Mary Cassatt died at the Château de Beaufresne on June 14, 1926, and was buried in the family vault at nearby Mesnil-Théribus. 

  • Yugoslavia 1991. "Girl with Cat". Nothing much is known about this charming painting, which belongs to the National Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade. Scan by courtesy of Mr. Primoz Cebulj (Slovenia). 

The majority of Cassatt’s works today are in American collections, while just a small number of paintings remain in France, where she worked. Her name is less familiar than those of her fellow Impressionist painters Degas, Monet or Renoir. However, Mary Cassatt is a highly original and interesting painter and her talent does not yield to those with well-known names. 

Sources and links: 

Other Impressionist painters on this site (in alphabetical order). 

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Revised 26-sep-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
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