National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Mary Cassatt — Selected Paintings

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Mary Cassatt was born into an affluent family in Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the country's leading art schools. In addition to having regular exhibitions of European and American art, the faculty at the Academy encouraged students to study abroad. In 1865 Cassatt approached her parents with the idea of studying in Paris. Despite their initial objections, Cassatt's parents relented and allowed her to go.

In Paris, Cassatt attended classes in the studios of the academic artists Jean Léon Gérôme and Thomas Couture. She also traveled extensively in Europe studying and copying old master paintings. In 1874 she settled permanently in Paris, where her work was regularly shown at the Salon, the annual government-sponsored exhibition. The following year she saw the pastel work of Edgar Degas, one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement, in a gallery window. Years later, Cassatt described the importance of this experience, "I used to go and flatten my nose against the window and absorb all I could of his art. It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

Cassatt was one of a relatively small number of American women to become professional artists in the nineteenth century when most women, particularly wealthy ones, did not pursue a career. Her decision to study abroad reflects the strong character she displayed throughout her career. When Cassatt settled in Paris, an artistic revolution was already underway in France. Changes were occurring in the way that artists showed their work to the public, and in the freedom artists had to choose their own subjects and styles. Cassatt's career developed against the backdrop of these changes.

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