Self-Portrait, c. 1880, Mary Cassatt.
Self-Portrait, c. 1880, Mary Cassatt. Gouache and watercolor over graphite on paper, 32.7 cm × 24.6 cm (12 7/8″ × 9 11/16″). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Right: Detail of Mother and Child with a Rose Scarf.

A master of capturing tenderness on the canvas, Mary Cassatt created images that deepened our understanding of the human condition. Predominantly painting the world of mothers and children, she opened up art to realms of being it had never gone to before.

The Early Life of Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was born on May 22, 1844 just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her family had some money thanks to finance, with her father a broker and her mother the daughter of a wealthy banking family.

Already as a young girl, Mary spent long stretches of time in Europe and learned all about art popular in France at the time. This study inspired her to enroll in painting lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at 15.

While studying, she quickly took on new feminist ideas. But these ideals chided against the attitude of male professors, which considered painting a profession unsuited to women. 

After the Bullfight, 1873, Mary Cassatt.
After the Bullfight, 1873, Mary Cassatt. Oil on canvas, 82.5 × 64 cm (32 1/8 × 25 3/16 in). The Art Institute of Chicago.

Becoming an Impressionist

Frustrated, Cassatt moved to Paris where she could study privately under Jean-Léon Gérôme and make copies of masterpieces at the Louvre. Though her mother accompanied her, it was a time of freedom for the young woman.

But just as she was breaking barriers in the Paris Salon, the Franco-Prussian War sent her back home. While waiting around in Pennsylvania, a local church commissioned two paintings by her, which included sending her off to Parma, Italy to make copies of Correggio’s work.

Soon, she was once again breathing in the culture of Europe and successfully entering pieces to the Salon. Consider her well observed “After the Bullfight” (1873)—showing her mastery of the portrait.

Maternal Caress, 1890–1891, Mary Cassatt.
Maternal Caress, 1890–1891, Mary Cassatt. Color aquatint with drypoint from three plates, partially printed à la poupée, on ivory laid paper, plate: 36.8 × 26.8 cm (14 1/2 × 10 9/16 in). Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Right: Detail.

Though she had several successful years, her prospects began to wane as she tried to expand her artistic horizons. Yet in 1877, Edgar Degas asked Cassatt to exhibit along with the Impressionists—artists who were lighting up the Paris scene at the time. It is with this group that she found acceptance like never before. And Degas would prove a valuable, lifelong friendship.

Over the next few years, her sales grew and the focus of her work sharpened. By the end of the Impressionist movement, Cassatt landed on her lasting subject matter: images of mothers and children. At the time it was revolutionary, as the world of women was mostly relegated to domestic life, a sphere thought “below” fine art. Cassatt disagreed and history, it turns out, stood with Cassatt.

Mother and Child with a Rose Scarf, circa 1908, Mary Cassatt.
Mother and Child with a Rose Scarf, c. 1908, Mary Cassatt. Oil on canvas, 46 × 35 3/4 in (116.8 × 89.5 cm). Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967. Right: Detail.
Modern Woman mural, 1893, Mary Cassatt.
Modern Woman mural, 1893, Mary Cassatt. Woman’s Building, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois.

A Singular Voice

Cassatt’s later work tells the tale of an artist truly liberated and self-discovered. From the Japanese-inspired “Maternal Caress” (1890–91) to the more emblematic “Mother and Childwith a Rose Scarf” (1908), we can see how the last decades of her career rang out with a sense of purpose and the strength of a master’s hand.

Though audiences today might consider the subject matter quaint, it was a bold declaration that the moments of a woman’s day were vital to understanding the entire story. 

It is a declaration she made in much bolder terms with her grand “Modern Woman” mural, completed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1983. This inspiring triptych shows women reaching for knowledge, pursuing fame, and thriving in the arts. The work became a mecca for feminists around the country, just as her work still inspires us today.