5 Art History Facts About Mary Cassatt You Didn’t Know

By Milan Art Institute on May 14, 2021
5 Art History Facts About Mary Cassatt You Didn’t Know

Photo caption: Mary Cassatt’s painting The Boating Party captures the lively, yet intimate style of this American Impressionist. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The lives of famous artists have long held a certain fascination for art collectors and art students alike. It’s not unusual for a Google search of the term “facts about famous artists” to net results for artists like Claude Monet, Caravaggio or Sandro Botticelli

But one artist who doesn’t always make the list, but who definitely should is American Impressionist artist Mary Stevenson Cassatt, better known as Mary Cassatt. Cassatt was one of the few famous female artists working during the 19th century, yet she is not as well known as some of the best-known Impressionists like Monet or Degas. 

While the facts about Mary Cassatt may be known to the most ardent art history buff, there are other facts about her that aren’t as well known. Recently, Milan Art Institute co-founders, Elli and Dimitra Milan sat down and talked about Mary Cassatt’s life for our Milan Art Community. Here are a few facts about her life.

1. Facts About Mary Cassatt: She Was Expected to Be a Society Girl

Mary Cassatt was born in the 19th century on May 22, 1844 in the city of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. She was born into an upper middle class banking family. According to Elli Milan, Mary Cassatt’s father expected her to be a typical Victorian-age woman, to marry well and to live the traditional life that women of her era did. That is she was expected to be a wife and a mother. 

Cassatt defied her family’s wishes for her, particularly her father’s wishes, and became an artist. As Elli explains this career path was considered extremely renegade and edgy in its day, particularly for a woman to pursue. It was “anti-high society.” As such, she got no support for her art career from her family. There was even a threat to disown her.

2. Facts About Art History: Her Style Changed After Meeting Degas

Mary Cassatt’s decision to become an artist took courage. She didn’t attend school. Rather, she taught herself how to paint. She finally got enough money from doing commissions to move to Paris. The artist felt that the art scene in Paris would give her the opportunity to advance her career.

Eventually, Cassatt made the acquaintance of Edgar Degas, who invited her to become a part of the Impressionists’ group. Mary Cassatt became the only American associated with the Impressionists

From Degas, the American artist received critiques and encouragement. It was because of Degas’s influence that she eventually experimented with printmaking.

Ultimately, she presented her work in four of the Impressionists’ eight exhibitions: in the years 1879, 1880, 1881 and finally, in 1886.

Video caption: Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris 

3. Art History Fact: Cassatt Predominantly Painted Figures

Although Cassatt aligned with the Impressionists in terms of techniques, her subject matter differed. Much of her work centers around themes of family, particularly between mother and child. 

The inspiration for this came largely from her own desire to have children and a family. While the subject matter seems commonplace today, it was anything but during her time. Because of the conditions at the time of her life, Cassatt felt that she needed to choose between art and family. She chose art, but family was never far from her thoughts as her art demonstrates.

4. Art History Facts: Cassatt’s Work Showed the Power of Women

Ironically, given the fact that she remained childless, her work ultimately created a space to show the power and influence of women in society. She demonstrated how mothers have the power to shape and influence the people their children would become and ultimately shape society. She was also an early feminist and supported the suffragette movement.

Elli and Dimitra spoke during their talk about how Cassatt’s work and life opened doors for female artists, and while Cassatt herself couldn’t have a family and an art career at the same time, female artists today can, largely because of the sacrifices of artists like Mary Cassatt.

5. Facts About Mary Cassatt: She Advised Art Collectors

Cassatt mentored many collectors. Starting from the beginning of her time in Paris, she encouraged those she was advising to collect the works of both the French avant-garde movement and the old masters. Through this work, Cassatt eventually helped to shape the Metropolitan Museum’s Havemeyer Collection.

Video caption: Artstop: Mary Cassatt

Final Thoughts on Artist Mary Cassatt

Heroic artists come from all cultures and all walks of life. These are artists, like Mary Cassatt, who gave up much to devote their lives to art. Because of them, many artists, male and female alike, have been inspired to go after their art dreams, regardless of the sacrifice. They demonstrate the grit and strength of heart required to achieve their dreams no matter what.

Get access to the more valuable art content and connect with other artists from around the world in our Milan Art Community

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