Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Another Impressionist artist was an American woman, Mary Cassatt. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but spent most of her life in Europe. She began her studies in art (much to the dismay of her father) by studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, one of only a few art schools in the United States at the time. She furthered her studies in Paris by taking private lessons (women were not allowed in Paris art schools). She also traveled through Europe to study the works of the masters. Mary Cassatt worked primarily in oil and pastels and created prints.

Cassatt became friends with Impressionist artists and upheld their ideas. She exhibited her work with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1879 and received good reviews. She became a lifelong friend of the artist Edgar Degas. He showed her Japanese prints, which she greatly admired and used many of the techniques in her own prints. Women, children, and the bond between mother and child became the subjects of her developing style. Much of her artwork captures the tender moments of mother and child in everyday situations.


In her 1876 painting Young Mother Sewing, Cassatt used Impressionist brushstrokes to capture the effect of light streaming through the windows onto the mother and child. We see a tender moment as the child leans on her mother’s lap. The painting is very light and bright, typical of Impressionist paintings. Cassatt balances the cool colors in the foreground and background with warm colors in the middle ground. Lines in the folds and patterns of clothing move the eye around the composition to the mother’s hands, which are busy sewing; this focal point is emphasized by the use of a bright white light. This ordinary scene seems as if we are observing a special moment. The painting creates an overall feeling of softness and comfort. Although never able to have a child of her own, Cassatt’s understanding of the love between mother and child is evident in her work.

Mary Cassatt helped bring European art to America by providing assistance to visiting Americans who wanted to purchase art to take home. Many of the artworks she helped select have ended up in American museums. During the later part of her life, Mary Cassatt developed cataracts (a clouding of the lens of the eye) and began losing her eyesight. She eventually had to quit painting.

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