Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a pioneer of Impressionism, and one of few female artists of her time to achieve both critical and commercial success. Though born in the United States, Cassatt spent much of her childhood in France and Germany, where she was exposed to the European masters that would influence her later work, including Gustave Courbet, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-August-Dominique Ingres. Cassatt was fascinated with painting from a young age, and after two years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she moved to Paris to pursue artmaking at only 18 years old. In Paris she studied with the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, eventually establishing her own studio in 1874.
Cassatt’s work is characterized by the light, pastel colors and quick brushstrokes of Impressionism. Increasingly disenchanted with the politics of French academic art, Cassatt showed her work at the Third Impressionist Exhibition of 1877 at the invitation of Edgar Degas. Though she worked with other Impressionists and her practice was stylistically similar to those of her male counterparts, Cassatt’s compositions were unique. She focused on domestic scenes and images of women, rather than outdoor scenes that contrasted city and rural life, which were favored by her contemporaries.
Like many Impressionists, Cassatt was also heavily influenced by Edo period prints, which had become popular in France. Borrowing elements from these images, such as flattened perspective and an emphasis on patterning, Cassatt combined Impressionist colors and painterly brushstrokes with the perspectival tendencies of Edo period prints to create a singular style. Her bright compositions synthesize multiple influences and present deeply personal scenes that validated female spaces and activities in a society that favored male artists.
Though popular in the late-nineteenth century, by the end of her life Impressionism had fallen out of favor with the rise of Modernism. Cassatt remained committed to her style and so lost critical acclaim. Despite this, she was an important influence on future generations of artists. More recently, in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, art historians have reprioritized Cassatt’s depictions of private female spaces as essential to the Impressionist legacy and the role of women in the arts. Cassatt is widely recognized as one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.