Agatha and Her Child
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born into a well-to-do family in Pennsylvania. She enrolled in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at age 16, despite her father’s disapproval, and studied there during the American Civil War. While attending, Mary became unsettled by how patronizing the male faculty were. They viewed her artmaking as a mere social skill, rather than the creations of a true artist.
After several failed attempts at creating a portfolio of work that the men of her time would respect as equal to her contemporaries—including losing much of her work in the Great Chicago Fire (1871) during an exhibition there—Mary finally found her chance to prove herself when the Archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned her to paint copies of Correggio’s work.
Cassatt became famous for her portraits—particularly of mothers with their child. However, unlike traditional methods of presenting the pair in virtuous, sweet perfection, Mary’s interpretations were candid, authentic, and unfeigned. She was able to reveal women’s inner lives in a unique way with these domestic scenes. Ultimately, the artist would move to Paris where she would become a major figure in the Impressionist movement.
Her work slowly evolved as she experimented with new styles and when she stopped identifying herself as an Impressionist. Exploration of Japanese printmaking influenced her later work. Her mentor and friend, Edgar Degas, taught her etching.
At this time, Impressionism was considered avant-garde and radical—so much so that, in response to the Impressionist style and their private exhibits, the artwork was perceived as “dissentious” and the Salon shut out all Impressionist Exhibits and anyone who showed with them. Slighted by Paris in this way, Cassatt became instrumental in bringing Impressionism to the United States.