The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Mary Stevenson Cassatt, 1844-1926

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1844.05.22
Place of Birth: Pittsburgh, PA
Date of Death: 1926.06.14
Place of Death: Le Mesnil-Theribus, France


Mary Stevenson Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker who became part of the Impressionist circle in Paris. She was the daughter of a Pittsburgh banker and was brought up in a cultured environment, with five years being spent abroad. She had an older sister Lydia, and two brothers, one of whom was the successful engineer Alexander Johnston Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.


Cassatt received her artistic education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and then in Paris where she studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme and Charles Chaplin. She also studied with Paul Soyer in Ecouen, Thomas Couture in Villiers-le-Bel and Charles Bellay in Rome, concentrating mainly on figure painting. She spent sixteen months in the USA in 1870-71 but returned to Europe where she studied in galleries in Parma, Madrid, Seville, Antwerp and Rome, finally settling in Paris in 1874. She specialised in portraiture and genre scenes of women in domestic interiors and exhibited in the Paris Salons of 1868, 1870 and 1872-6. Degas invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists which she did in 1879-81 and in 1886. Works such as Cup of Tea (c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) show her to have absorbed the light palette and quick brushwork of the Impressionists. From the late 1880s Cassatt began moving away from the Impressionist style, and experimenting in pastel, print and oil with a more refined draughtsmanship, eg. The Bath (1893; Art Institute, Chicago). She exhibited with the Société des Peintres-Graveurs in 1889 and 1890, and held her own one-woman show at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1891. A major retrospective exhibition of her work was held in 1895 at this latter venue and again in 1895 in New York. In 1904 she was awarded the Légion d'honneur.

In 1883-5 JW painted a portrait of Cassatt's sister-in-law Lois, the wife of Alexander J. Cassatt, Arrangement in Black, No. 8: Portrait of Mrs Cassatt (YMSM 250), although Mary Cassatt had initially recommended Renoir. JW had to work in a hurry as the Cassatts had to return to Philadelphia at the end of April 1883. When he finally sent the portrait off to America in 1886 or 1887, he confided in Mary Cassatt that he thought the work to be unfinished. Mary Cassatt described the work in a letter to her brother dated 14 October 1883 as 'a fine picture, the figure especially beautifully drawn.' However, she didn't think it to be a particularly good likeness believing that JW 'sacrifices the head to the ensemble.' According to René Gimpel, Mary Cassatt described JW as 'a mountebank'.


Segard, A., Mary Cassatt: Une Peintre des enfants et des mères, Paris, 1913; Breeskin, A. D., The Graphic Work of Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1948; Gimpel, René, Diary of an art dealer, London, 1966; Breeskin, A. D., Mary Cassatt: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oils, Pastels, Watercolours and Drawings, Washington, 1970; Matthews, N. M. (ed.), Cassatt and her Circle: Selected Letters, New York, 1984; Matthews, N. M., Mary Cassatt: A Life, New York, 1994; Mathews, Nancy Mowll, 'Mary Cassatt', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 22 February 2002).