When painter, printmaker and draughtsman Mary Cassatt settled in Paris in 1874, the French art world was a fiercely male environment even among avant-garde Impressionist circles. As both an American and a woman, Cassatt was an outsider. Yet, by her death 50 years later, she had been awarded the Légion d’honneur and was hailed as one of the most important artists of her generation. Her delicate prints, paintings, and pastels, lauded by the likes of Degas for their vital contribution to the development of Impressionism, are among the most beautiful and important of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Cassatt was born near Pittsburgh to a wealthy Europhile family. At the age of 16 she began lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and, in 1866, sailed for Europe to train in some of the most important studios of the age, including that of Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture. From 1868 her paintings were exhibited at the Salon, and by 1874 she had permanently settled in Paris. Her subsequent work became increasingly influenced by Impressionism. Of a pastel drawing by Degas she saw in a Parisian shop window, she said, ‘It transformed my life. From that moment onwards I saw art in the way I wanted to see it.’ Degas, in turn, became familiar with her work through On the Balcony (1873) and Ida (1873) and Cassatt, whose paintings were now being rejected by the Salon as too avant-garde, was invited to exhibit at the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879.
By the 1880s Cassatt’s work had begun to show the subject matter and style that would become her enduring aesthetic. Tender scenes of women washing or mothers with their children were rendered in delicate pastels, or Japanese-inspired engravings and aquatints. It was a period that lasted until cataracts forced her into retirement in 1915, and produced some of the masterpieces of Impressionism such as The Child's Bath (1893) and the series of ten coloured aquatints (1890-91) she made on the domestic lives of women.
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