Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) to Robert Simpson Cassatt and Katherine Kelso Johnston, Mary Cassatt travelled extensively since early childhood. While in Europe she learnt German and French and also the basic skills of drawing and music. A visit to Paris World Fair, 1855 exposed her to the works of master artists and ignited her passion for painting. Much to the dismay of her parents, she declared her intention of being a professional artist early. To further that cause she studied in Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1861 to 1865. She was, however, left disappointed with the training she received there. She eventually moved to Paris in 1865 to study painting under the tutelage of revered teachers there. Her father continued to object her association with the vocation and only supplied for her basic needs. He refused to pay for the art supplies that she needed to practice and hone her skills. Shortly after she returned to US (in 1870) she wrote a letter in which she clearly expressed her exasperation to this kind of attitude, ‘I have given up my studio & torn up my father’s portrait, & have not touched a brush for six weeks nor ever will again until I see some prospect of getting back to Europe. I am very anxious to go out west next fall & get some employment, but I have not yet decided where.’ She was determined to make an independent living for herself.
Mary Cassatt’s prospects as an artist brightened as she received glowing commendations for her work in Parma. She briefly worked in Spain before finally taking up her residence in France (1874). Her sister Lydia also joined her. She was much distressed by the status of female artists in the world of art. At a career low point in 1877 she was invited by Edgar Degas to show her work with the so called impressionists. Her friend and colleague, Berthe Morisot, was already a part of the group. This affected her life deeply as she herself wrote, ‘I saw art then as I wanted to see it.’
Her work started to be influenced by the impressionists. But it was not the only source of inspiration. The paintings of mother and child were leaves taken from the pages of renaissance era after viewing Madonna and Child. Both her skills and popularity as an artist started soaring. In 1882, the death of her sister Lydia shaken her to the core and also threatened to halt her work. In the height of her fame, in 1906, she also lost his brother Alexander Cassatt whom she immortalised through her painting, Father and the Son. In recognition to her contribution to art, France awarded her the Légion d’honneur in 1904. Overcome with various illnesses she struggled to continue her visual essays of life. In 1914, she almost became blind but still displayed eighteen paintings in an exhibition supporting the cause of women’s suffrage (1915). She passed away on June 14, 1926 at Château de Beaufresne, near Paris, France.
Mary Cassatt’s figurative painting, depicting the tender love and lightness of heart, is admired to this date. By portraying subjects from everyday life she also managed to strike a deeper chord in the hearts of the viewers and patrons who appreciated her work. The warmth of colour as well as the storyline was the hallmark of her work much in line with the impressionist philosophy that mentored and moulded her artistic core.