Mary Cassatt’s Parisian Inspiration: Delacroix to Degas

by Brennan Long

Mary Cassatt, painted by Edgar Degas 1884

Mary Cassatt is celebrated as one of the greatest masters of impressionism as well as the modern art movement. Cassatt is the only American artist of her generation to fully embrace the Parisian impressionist movement. Paris nurtured Cassatt, giving her the chance to train with the best teachers, and start her career with submission into the Paris Salon. Paris continued to inspire Cassatt throughout her life, as she moved from realism to impressionism into shaping modernism.

Her parents’ emphasis on the importance of education and studying abroad resulted in Cassatt leaving her home in Allegany City, Pennsylvania, at the young age of six, and spending five years in Europe traveling to cities such as London, Berlin, and Paris (Matthews 11). At the age of eleven, the Paris World’s Fair of 1855 introduced Cassatt to famous exhibitions of Delacroix, Ingres, and Courbet, opening her eyes to the work and style of French realists of the time (Matthews 13). Cassatt’s exposure to French artwork while in Paris lead to her interest in pursuing painting.

A few years after Cassatt and her family returned to the US, she was eager to start her studies at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, despite her parents’ disapproval of art as a career choice (Matthews 19). Cassatt’s experience with art in France influenced her decision to pursue art as a career, and eventually lead her to decide that Paris would be a more beneficial atmosphere in aiding her artistic goals.

Mary Cassatt's "On the Balcony" 1873

Cassatt moved to Paris to study with the masters from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the principal art academy in France located on the Left Bank. Her private lessons with Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin, and Thomas Couture gave her one-on-one training and experience with some of the best professors. After studying with these artists her romantic style painting, A Mandolin Player, was selected by the jury of the Paris salon in 1868 (Matthews 63). Having a painting selected for this annual art exhibition run by the French government was considered one of the greatest successes in the art community.

Mary Cassatt's "Young Mother Sewing" 1900

This success caused Cassatt to submit two new works to the New York Gallery in 1870, and for the next seven years she continued to produce works accepted by the Paris Salon. In 1877 however, the salon rejected Cassatt’s artwork, and she started to look for a new direction. Edgar Degas, a French artist living in Paris, invited Cassatt to join the impressionists and show her work in their independent exhibitions (Matthews 119). Cassatt eagerly adopted the impressionist style and it brought a new element into her artwork, as she left the studio and began to paint outdoors. The experiences she had with the impressionists in Paris lead Cassatt to begin to paint works capturing the essence of motherhood, and children, subjects she is most well-known for today.

Mary Cassatt's "The Child's Bath" 1893

In 1886 Cassatt left the Impressionists to focus on simpler work with cleaner lines, after she was inspired by an exhibit of the Japanese Masters shown in Paris. Cassatt continued to live and work in Paris until 1913, when she moved just outside the city to her French country home called Beaufresne. Cassatt continued to paint there, until 1914 when she developed cataracts and after several failed eye operations was forced to stop painting. Cassatt spent the last years of her life reading books and looking at the paintings of her past, until her death on June 14, 1926 (Matthews 312).

Paris’ remarkable art exhibits and excellent training developed Mary Cassatt into a great artist who not only influenced the impressionist movement, but also contributed to the start of modernism. She was an influential artist because of the way in which she captured women’s lives, as only another woman could. Paris gave Cassatt the opportunity to learn from the very best artists, and the Paris Salon gave her the opportunity to showcase her work. Paris continued to inspire Cassatt throughout her life, as she moved from realism to impressionism into shaping the modern art movement. Mary Cassatt’s work is still displayed in Paris today, at the Louvre, as well as at the Musee D’Orsay (Pollock 34, 37)

Works Cited

“Mary Cassatt Biography.” Mary Cassatt – The Complete Works. Mary n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.

Mancoff, Debra N. Mary Cassatt: Reflections of Women’s Lives. London, England: Frances  Lincoln Limited, 1998. Print.

Matthews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York City, New York: Random House Inc., 1994. Print.

Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt. London, England: Chaucer Press, 2005. Print.

Pollock Griselda. Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women. New York City, New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1998. Print.

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