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Mary Cassatt was an outstanding, influential artist and feminist of her time. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - at the time, known as Allegheny City which was later appended to Pittsburgh - in May 1844 to a family of the American upper middle class. Robert Simpson Cassat, her father (who added the extra “t” later on) was a stockbroker and would often invest in acquiring promising lands. Although during her lifetime, her father would always supply her with financial support, he wasn’t supportive of her decision to become an artist. Her mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston, on the other hand, would encourage Cassatt to travel and was passionate about literature and culture in general. Katherine had an enormous influence on the artist’s work through her entire career, as her central motif was the bond between mother and child. She lived with her six siblings, although two passed away when infants. Traveling was part of Cassatt’s education, so as a child she spent many years in Europe learning how to speak German and French, as well as beginning to study art and music. While abroad she went to various locations like Berlin, London, and Paris, where she had access to European’s most exceptional artworks. In 1855, at only eleven years old, Cassatt visited the Paris World’s Fair and saw oil paintings by the Neo-Classical artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the Romanticist, Delacroix, and the Realists, Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet. She also saw works by her future colleagues Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas.
Cassatt returned to the USA and began to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the young age of fifteen. Her family opposed her decision to become a professional artist, since this period it was not considered a suitable occupation for a woman. The painter was a feminist; an advocate for equal rights, and just becoming an artist was already an act of resistance. During the American Civil War, Cassatt studied in the Academy, from 1861 to 1865, but eventually grew tired of the chauvinistic education system that didn’t find it essential for women to learn about art. There weren’t many women painters in the Academy, and when there were, they would only be allowed access to plaster casts for referênce, meaning the men were the only ones allowed to work with live models.
Like many other artists of the time, Cassatt decided to study painting by copying the works of past masters. Not seeing any future for her art in America, in 1866 she moved to Paris officially ending her formal studies, since women were not allowed to attend the École des Beaux-Arts. But she didn’t give up and continued studying with Jean-Léon Gérôme and later on with other artists as her teacher, as well as making daily visits to the Louvre. In 1868, the Paris Salon accepted artworks done by women for the first time - Elizabeth Jane Gardener and Cassatt, who exhibited A Mandoline Player. Although many avant-guard painters began to go against the Academy and defend modern art, Cassatt continued submitting her art to the Paris Salon.
In 1877, Cassatt experienced a low point in her career, in which the Salon didn’t accept her work. By this time, Degas made the exciting offer for her to join the Impressionists and she agreed. After Berthe Morisot, Cassatt became the second woman to join the group. During this period, she expanded her artistic abilities by working with pastels and etching with the help of Degas. The American artist became quite debilitated by the turn of the century, and by 1911 she was still working after being diagnosed with cataracts, neuralgia, diabetes, and rheumatism - only stopping completely three years later, when she became almost entirely blind. Cassatt passed away on June 1926 near Paris, at Château de Beaufresne.