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 Diana Billings Art Blog


Time for another woman in art. We hear about male artists so much it is easy to forget there are and were many great female artists. Mary Cassett was an artist during the Impressionism period. She was a very talented artist and had to fight for everything she achieved, from the father that did not support her to the Paris hierarchy.

Mary Cassett born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844 to a well to do family, her father being a real-estates developer. She died June 14, 1926, at 82 years old.

In 1861, when Mary turned 16, she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. By 1865 she was frustrated with her progress at the school. The programs were slow paced and the courses she felt were inadequate. She was also regularly treated in a patronizing manner at the male dominated school. In 1866 she decided she needed to go the Paris to learn. She enrolled in private lessons at the Louvre. There Mary studied and copied the Old Masters for two years, learning all the traditional techniques of painting. About this time she met Edgar Degas, who was very encouraging and supportive of her work. This led Mary to the opportunity of being selected to show at the Paris salon in 1868. Due to her fathers objection to her painting and having a career, she exhibited under the name of Mary Stevenson.

Little girl in blue armchair.

In 1870-71 the Franco Prussian War broke out and Mary moved back to Pittsburgh with her family. Her father did not permit Mary to continue painting and refused to give her money to buy paint supplies. She tried to sell her paintings to no avail, then a fire destroyed Mary’s art. She felt lost. Fortunately, the archbishop of Pittsburgh wanted a commission of two copies of old master paintings by Antonio de Correggio. Mary accepted the assignment and was on her way back to Europe. Mary would continue her art career in Paris.

Mary’s art work consisted of domestic life and the lives of bourgeois women, painting many beautiful portraits. Mary exhibited in many Paris salons in 1870 through to 1876. Mary’s work was well received and respected, though some critics though she was “too female”, as her subjects were portraits of women’s lives, rather than of landscapes and other subjects. The painting world was still dominated by men. Mary’s work was well known for her bright colours and use of light. Her work was called elegant and worthy of serious attention.

As time went by her work was getting more experimental and breaking away from the traditional styles that the Paris salon dictated. Mary, being a staunch supporter of expressing herself and supporting other artists, moved on. Mary’s recognition grew she was invited to join the Impressionist exhibitions of 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886. Mary was the only American considered as an Impressionist and one of a few women.

Again as time went by her work was evolving and she was not longer considered to be impressionistic in her style. Mary’s style was becoming simpler and straight forward, more realistic. By the 1890’s Mary’s work was showing in private galleries. Mary started experimenting with the Japanese print making styles, once again producing some very beautiful prints of women.

Over the years Mary experienced great loss when her sister, then mother and later brother died. After each of these deaths she stopped painting for a period of time.

The Boating Party (1893-94)

As Mary aged she developed diabetes and 1910 she began to lose her eyesight, ending her painting career. As her eyesight diminished she became frustrated, miserable and unhappy. Mary had lost her greatest joy in life- to paint.

Source: The New Painting Impressionism 1874-1886

By The Fine Arts Museum of San Fransisco

Published 1986


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