An American Treasure

by Judith Brown and Serena Kovalosky 

"Five o'clock tea", 1880
"Five O'Clock Tea" (1880) by Mary Cassat, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA


American painter, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), became known as a leading figure in the French Impressionist movement. Cassatt’s artistic career led her from her birthplace in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to bohemian Paris where she was encouraged by her mentor and fellow impressionist artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), becoming the only female American artist to have exhibited with the impressionists. 

Cassatt was one of seven children born to a professional and educated Pennsylvania family who endorsed the idea of travel as a way to expand the mind. She spent time in Europe, acquiring the ability to speak German and French, as well as furthering her love for - and determination to study - art. She began her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age sixteen, however she encountered friction within her family when she wanted to pursue her art in a professional context; her father, especially,  did not approve of this plan. Nevertheless, in 1866 she moved to Paris in an attempt to experience a more substantial training in art. 

Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century was a bustling hub of artists from all over the world who flocked to the city to study painting in its renowned academies. Towards the end of the century foreign female artists like Cassatt and Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-84) left their home countries and became influential artists in Paris and, later, the world. 

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"Self-Portrait" (c1880) by Mary Cassatt, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

At the time of Cassatt’s arrival, however, opportunities for women to study at the formal school of art were restricted, so she turned to established artists who served as her teachers, one of whom was Degas who offered her a central role within the new impressionist movement. This was no small feat, considering the other impressionist artists were male, including painters such as Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), Ėdouard Manet (1832-83), Alfred Sissley (1839-83) and Edgar Degas; with the exception of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) whose talent was as exceptional as that of her male peers. Of equal importance to Cassatt’s “promotion” is the fact that the impressionists held their own exhibitions independently from the Paris state-run “salon”which provided an opportunity for the artist’s work to be seen in public, since many works by impressionist artists, including those by Cassatt, had been rejected by the judges of the Paris salon. It was through these exhibits that her art was first spotted by Degas. As an admission of his regard for her extraordinary talent, Degas once said, “Most women paint as though they are trimming hats. Not you.”[1] Although it can be seen as a privilege that Cassatt was invited to join the impressionist group, it is clear from her works that she developed an increasingly independent style and was awarded membership in France’s Legion of Honor in 1904. 

The Childs Bath by Mary Cassatt

"The Child's Bath" (1893) by Mary Cassatt, The Art institute, Chicago, IL

Cassatt is most widely known for her depictions of children with their mothers and caregivers. This subject matter proved to be a successful business venture for Cassatt, who was quick to identify a potentially popular trend in the art market and seize upon it as her own.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
" Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" (1878) by Mary Cassatt, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair was the first of Cassatt’s impressionist work. The oil portrait has a surrealist feeling to it, yet it also appears modern, with the predominant armchairs taking up a lot of space and imbuing the painting with an abstract quality. Impressionism was an experiment in portraying tranquil simplicity in all its guises - specifically that of the natural world. Although landscapes involving natural scenery were a key component of the impressionists, some of the artists chose to focus on figures and Cassatt was one of those artists, as well as Degas. We can see that the portrait adheres to her style of depicting children and the typical serene settings of the home. 

Another aspect of impressionism which can be evidenced in this work is the depiction of a moment in time, often a fleeting one, or a private moment. This is why the name of the movement denotes an “impression” gained from looking at the painting - nothing more, nothing less. Here, we see the girl looking down, away from our gaze, as if she is not interested in her portrait being painted. Cassatt often captured children’s private worlds and what can be noticed in this painting is the girl’s attitude of carelessness. It is as if Cassatt is showing a more rebellious side of childhood that would not normally have been expressed in a conventional painting. The girl’s facial expression is entirely incongruous with the surroundings and the dress she is wearing. On an intuitive level, the viewer easily picks up on her discomfort; maybe they can even relate to her feeling of being out of place, entrapped or frustrated. The painting evokes a myriad of different feelings.


Mary Cassatt, Simone in a Blue Bonnet, 1903
"Mary Cassatt, Simone in a Blue Bonnet" (1903) by Mary Cassatt, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA

By the time she painted Simone in a Blue Bonnet in 1903, Cassatt was a fully-fledged impressionist painter. Approximately twenty versions of this painting exist, all featuring the same girl, Simone, who lived near Cassatt in Paris. Within this painting we can see central characteristics of the impressionist style. These include a sense of fluidity, loose brushwork and luminous color and light. Of note is the juxtaposition of color; when colors at opposite ends of the color wheel are placed next to each other, the colors are intensified. The impressionists were known for this technique, as opposed to blending the colors into each other, as this makes the color stand out even more and enhances the brightness. The pink on the girl’s face, for example, makes her come alive and her face becomes the focal point of the painting. Darker and earthier tones were employed during the preceding romantic period and in the works of British landscape artists. The French artist Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) famously said, “Impressionism: It is the birth of light in painting.”[2]


Mary Cassatt, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879
"Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge" (1879) by Mary Cassatt, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

In Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge we see a lady who is reported to be Cassatt’s sister, Lydia, seated in a booth in the Paris Opera house. This picture is quite different as clearly there are no children involved, and the atmosphere is much more extravagant and Parisian in its tone. There is an overriding theme of “display” and opulence as well as a contradictory dynamic between the public world and the privacy of Cassatt’s sister’s booth or “loge.” Regarding the nature of “display,” it is important to highlight that the impressionist movement was about expressing what the artists saw and felt, relative to them alone. As Manet put it, “I paint what I see, not what others like to see.” They genuinely believed that what the artist saw, in connection with the surroundings of the subject was the “real vision” that needed to be made manifest. Here again the use of luminous light and shadow and the brushstroke effects make Lydia’s figure seem very solid, as if she is outside of the painting. This feeling of movement gives her that freedom and sense of personal assertion within the framework that encourages the viewer to believe this is a real moment in this woman’s life.

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Mary Cassatt, Child in Straw Hat,
"Child in Straw Hat" (1886) by Mary Cassatt 

Despite having this shared approach to their art, the impressionists were in fact comprised of artists who all had their individuality within the group whether it was in their subject matter or materials used. For example, Cassatt was known to have used pastel for much of her work, in addition to oil on canvas. There was no hierarchy of importance with regard to content. Scenes of landscape, children or contemporary daily life would all have been viewed by the artists under the same premise - that of capturing relative vision, whatever the focus may have been. They also stood tall together amidst a great deal of negative publicity. This was most strongly expressed by the art critic Louis Leroy (1812-85), who, ironically, gave the group their name as he was patronizing Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872) for what he saw as its lack of finish. In a very sarcastic tone, he delivered a scathing assessment of their work in the French satirical magazine La Charivari: “Impressionism – I knew it. I was thinking that since I’m impressed, there must be some impression in there.”[3]

"Auguste reading to her daughter", 1910 by Mary Cassatt
"Auguste Reading to her Daughter" (1910) by Mary Cassatt, Private Collection

Returning to Cassatt’s position within the impressionists, it is important to reinforce that her American origins and family values of hard work, persistence and determination shaped her into the pioneering spirit that she was. As Nancy Mathews (b. 1947) explains, “Since much of Mary Cassatt’s story is about how she departed from this solid background; it is easy to overlook the fact that beyond the confines of the Pennsylvania gentry she brought certain of its indelible qualities along.”[4] Having ancestors who traveled to America from Europe, reaching their dreams and instilling the same aspiration in the young Cassatt would have undoubtedly contributed to her forward thinking and originality as an artist. Perhaps the ultimate recognition of her ability was in being commissioned to produce an enormous mural for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. 

A rediscovery of Cassatt’s work today certainly reveals not only her beautiful artwork but also a fresh insight into the culture in which she lived and worked; how she used her personal circumstances to create the most far-reaching opportunities. Perhaps it is for this reason that she has been coined an “American Treasure.”

[1]  Nancy Caldwell Sorel, When Edgar Degas met Mary Cassatt in 'The Independent', March 1996. (Changed the order).
[2] The original source is the following 1912 essay: Robert Delaunay's, "Light" or "La Lumière", which was published in Der Sturm, 1913, translated from French to German by Paul Klee.
[3] Louis Leroy, review entitled "The Exhibition of the Impressionists", printed in "La Charivari", 25th April 1874.
[4] Nancy Mowll Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life, Yale University Press, 1998, p.3.

About the Authors

Judith Brown is a freelance writer who, after obtaining a masters in English from Kings College London, continued to pursue an interest in art. In her articles she draws links between art and literature, showing how both mediums have meaning in today's world.

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Serena Kovalosky is a sculptor, cultural project developer and film producer who creates and produces projects at the intersection of art, culture and travel. She is the founder of Artful Vagabond Productions whose mission is to celebrate the creativity and inspiration that artists bring to this world and to promote the value of art in an “artful” lifestyle. 

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