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Mary Cassatt For Kids

Biography of Mary Cassatt

“I would rather see you dead.”

That sounds a bit drastic doesn’t it? But it was what Mary Cassatt’s father said to her when she told him she wanted to be a professional artist. It was 1860 and Mary was 16, and at that time art was not considered a suitable career for a girl, especially one from a wealthy home like Mary’s.

Her father must have changed his mind because Mary Cassatt became a student at the Pennsylvania Art Academy. Students had to copy famous paintings and engravings for several years before being allowed to do their own. Mary soon felt fed up of this and began to paint on her own anyway. Her family had lived in France for a while when she was young, and she began to think that to really learn about art she had to go back to Europe to see famous paintings in France and Italy.

Cassatt moves to Europe

In 1865, along with her friend Eliza Haldeman, Mary went to Paris in France. But women were not allowed to study at the important art school, the École de Beaux-Arts (School of Beautiful Arts.) Instead Mary Cassatt and her friend had private lessons from one of the teachers at the École: Jean-Léon Gérôme. They also got permission to copy paintings at the famous French gallery, The Louvre.

Later they moved to the countryside near Paris and learned from the many artists who lived there.

"On the Balcony"

This was painted in 1873, before Cassatt met the Impressionists

This was painted in 1873, before Cassatt met the Impressionists

The Salon

In 1868 one of Mary Cassatt’s paintings was accepted for an exhibition called The Salon. This exhibition was the most important in France and to have a painting accepted there was a sign of success.

Mary’s family weren’t as impressed as the judges at the salon. On hearing the news, her brother said, “She expects to be famous, poor child.” (Mary was 24 by then!)

Mary goes back to America

In 1870 France went to war with Prussia (Germany) and Mary Cassatt went back home to the United States. Her father was still against her career in art, and although he paid for her living expenses he would not pay for any art supplies. (This might sound as if Mary was spoiled, but in the 19th century it was normal for wealthy parents to pay for their daughter’s living expenses.) Mary Cassatt tried to sell some of her paintings, but several of them were destroyed in a fire.

Cassatt's return to Europe

The archbishop of Pittsburg commissioned Cassatt to copy two paintings by the Italian painter Correggio so in 1872 she returned to Europe, first going to Italy.

When she finished her work there she returned to Paris, and her sister Lydia came to live with her. Although Mary's father did not want her to be an artist, he and her mother came to visit their daughters in France in 1877.

Cassatt had more paintings accepted by the Salon, but felt frustrated with the way the judges looked down on women artists.


Mary Cassatt, painted by Edgar Degas

Cassatt meets Degas

In 1874, the painter Edgar Degas saw Cassatt’s painting, Ida, in the Salon and was impressed. Meantime she also admired his work in a gallery in Paris. Later she said, “I used to press my nose against the window to see his art. It changed my life.”

The two artists did not meet until 1877 when Degas visited Mary Cassatt and invited her to exhibit her paintings with the Impressionist group of painters.

This was a difficult decision for Mary because the Impressionists did not allow their members to exhibit at the Salon. However, that year the paintings she entered were both rejected and so she accepted Degas’s invitation. She was pleased to be showing her work with lively modern painters, and became linked with the Impressionists for many more years. She and Degas were friends for the rest of their lives.

Mary Cassatt and Impressionism

In 1874 a very important event in art took place in Paris. A group of young painters got together and put on their own exhibition. They called it the Independent exhibition, but a critic called them The Impressionists and the name stuck. This group often had their work rejected by the Salon because they did not paint in the traditional way. They were more interested in creating atmosphere than creating a “perfect” picture. They wanted to paint what they actually saw in front of them, and often painted outdoors. At the time it was more usual to draw outside, but then paint the picture in a studio (and artists did not have photographs to refer to back then!)

Impressionists were very interested in how light affected what they saw, and sometimes painted the same scene at different times of day or in different seasons. Because of this they often had to work quickly and their paintings had “looser” brushwork than traditional painting. They more often painted landscapes than people. Mary Cassatt and Degas both used similar techniques to the other Impressionists, but preferred to paint people. This is known as figure painting.

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Berthe Morisot was another female Impressonist, and the two women became friends.


Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (1880)

Mary Cassatt's Paintings of Children

Women in the 19th century were not allowed to paint many of the people that men could. It was common for men to learn to draw paint figures by drawing "from life." This means drawing people with no clothes on. Women were not allowed to do this, and it was part of the reason they could not go to the École de Beaux-Arts. Women were also not allowed into many of the cafés where men went, and so mostly painted scenes in their homes.

Children were the people that Mary Cassatt most liked to paint, and it is her paintings of children that she is now most famous for. Although she never had children of her own, she had nieces and nephews and many friends with children. In 1880 her brother came to visit with his family, so she had plenty of models.

Often Cassatt painted mothers with children doing everyday things such as bathing or having a cuddle. In general she painted people doing ordinary activities, such as washing, drinking tea, reading or sewing. The people in her pictures look natural and engrossed in what they are doing. This may not seem unusual to you, but in the 19th century it was!

Compare the painting of Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child, or the painting below to The Balcony, which was painted before Mary Cassatt met Degas. You can see how much her style changed in just a few years!


Techniques in Mary Cassatt's paintings

We are now going to look more closely at some of Cassatt's paintings. First, here are a few ways of talking and writing about art that you might not be familiar with.

Definition of artistic terms

  • Loose brushwork: means that paint is not blended so thoroughly and the strokes of the brush can be seen more easily. This makes a painting that is usually less detailed, but livelier, than paintings that are more precise.
  • Composition: is how the picture is arranged
  • Tone: is how dark or light a picture or object is.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair


Little Girl in a Blue Armchair

Degas gave Mary Cassatt advice on this painting, and told her it was very good. She felt angry when it was rejected for a major exhibition, the Paris Exposition Universelle, in 1878. While Little Girl In A Blue Armchair does not look shocking to us today, in 1878 the judges didn’t like the way the girl was sitting in the chair! They thought it to be somewhat unladylike. The way the child is slumped in the chair looks as if she is a little bored with sitting, and would like to get up and run around. The angles of her arms and legs add to the sense of her restlessness and this contrasts with the round shape of the peacefully sleeping dog.

Mary Cassatt used composition and tone to draw our attention to the girl. The chairs take up most of the picture. The area of floor between them is known in art as “negative space.” This is a space between objects that forms a shape. In this painting the negative space forms an arrow pointing towards the foreground where the little girl and her dog sit.

To understand the effects of tone in the painting, half close your eyes and look at the picture.

Did you notice how strongly the light and dark of the little girl’s dress, sash and hair stand out? Even her skin is pale compared to the surroundings. Almost everything apart from the girl is very even in tone, and so she stands out.

The Bath: 1891

A print by the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro

The Bath

By choosing to paint the mother and child at bath time Mary Cassatt shows the closeness of their relationship. She has used several techniques to add to this feeling of closeness:

  • Looking down on them makes them seem more like one.
  • The two dark heads next to each other shows their closeness.
  • They aren’t looking at us, but are looking down. This creates a sense that they are absorbed in each other and in what they are doing.

In 1890 Mary Cassatt visited an exhibition of Japanese prints. After this she made several prints of her own, but the visit also influenced how she painted. In particular she was interested in the woodcut prints of the artist Kitagawa Utamaro. You can see one of his prints opposite. In The Bath the influence of Japanese prints can be seen in the mix of patterns, and the colors are similar.

Cassatt uses a mixture of patterns in this painting to create interest. The floral design on the furniture and wallpaper at the top of the painting are loosely painted to give a feeling of distance, while the carpet is more detailed. The stripes of the mother’s dress contrast with these floral patterns, and cut through the middle of the painting, bringing our attention back to the figures.

Mary Cassatt also used repetition to connect parts of the picture: the colors of the water bowl echo the colors of the mother’s dress, and the shape of the jug handle is echoed somewhere else in the painting. Can you see where that is? Take the quiz at the end of the article to see if you are correct!


Girl Arranging Her Hair

Degas and Cassatt have an argument

Although Cassatt and Degas were good friends, he was sometimes very critical of her, saying that women knew nothing about style. Cassatt wanted to prove him wrong. She chose a model she thought was ugly, and painted her in an ordinary scene, arranging her hair before going to bed. The girl wears a plain nightdress and her face has a vacant expression. Behind her are a 19th century washing bowl and a jug. With the painting Girl Arranging Her Hair Cassatt wanted to prove that she could take an ordinary subject and make a beautiful painting.

And did Mary win over her friend? You bet.

“What drawing!” he said. “What style!” He kept the painting until he died.

Some more information about Cassatt's life

In 1882, Mary's sister Lydia died, and for a while Mary was too upset to work.

In 1886 Cassatt took part in the last Impressionist exhibition in France and the first Impressionist exhibition in New York.

In 1891 she had her first solo exhibition.

In 1892 she was asked to paint a mural on the theme of “Modern Woman” for the World Fair in Chicago.

In 1895 she had her first solo exhibition in the United States. That same year her mother died.

Young Mother Sewing

In "Young Mother Sewing," the mother is busy with her work and doesn't even stop when the little girl leans on her lap.

In "Young Mother Sewing," the mother is busy with her work and doesn't even stop when the little girl leans on her lap.

The painting opposite, Young Mother Sewing, is one that Cassatt painted in 1900.

1n 1904 she received a French honour: Légion d'honneur.

Her last visit to America was in 1908 - 9.

In 1910 she took a trip to Egypt with her brother Gardner. He became ill and died, and Mary was too upset to work for some time.

In 1912 the French writer Archille Segard wrote a book about her life.

In 1914 she received a Gold Medal of Honor from Pennsylvania Academy.

By 1915 her eyesight was too poor for her to paint. She helped organise an exhibition of her own and Degas' work to raise money in support of movement for votes for women (women's suffrage.)

In 1926 Mary Cassatt died.

Try this quiz to see how much you've learned about Mary Cassatt

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. In what year was Mary Cassatt born?
    • 1844
    • 1846
    • 1860
  2. Mary was influenced by painters from which country?
    • Japan
    • France
    • United Kingdom
  3. Mary Cassatt was influenced by print-makers from which country?
    • Japan
    • France
    • United Kingdom
  4. In the painting "The Bath" where is the shape of the jug handle echoed?
    • In the shape formed by the mother's arm
    • In the shape formed by the 2 heads
    • In the shape formed by the girl's arm
  5. What was the name of the group of artists Degas invited Mary Cassatt to join?
    • The Imposters
    • The Impressionists
    • The Salon
  6. Why did Mary mainly paint women and children
    • Because she wasn't allowed to paint some of things men did.
    • Because she liked painting children.
    • Both of the above

Answer Key

  1. 1844
  2. France
  3. Japan
  4. In the shape formed by the girl's arm
  5. The Impressionists
  6. Both of the above

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 24, 2016:

Thanks Glenis. Glad you enjoyed it. She's one of my favourite painters.

Glen Rix from UK on September 21, 2016:

I very much enjoyed reading this hub. Was not familiar with the work of Mary Cassat, so thanks for the introduction. Love the paintings of children.

TruthisReal from New York on October 24, 2015:

Very interesting I do also love Mary Cassatt's work. Such an incredible artist, thank you for making this hub so informative. You earned a new follower. :)

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on November 11, 2012:

pstrauble, thank you for such a lovely comment. What a great way to describe Mary Cassatt's work. And I agree, it does feel as if you are there with her subjects.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 10, 2012:

Mary's work calls to me each time I view it. I wrote an article when I first came onto hubpages last year about introducing young children to great works of art and the painters. She was one I featured.

Her work makes me feel...It is as if I am in the room with those she has captured and held for us in time. What a gift to be able to create in this way.

Thank you for much, Melovy, for sharing with us. :) Have a happi Saturday. ps

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 06, 2012:

Thanks very much for checking!

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 06, 2012:

Melovy, yes, the quiz is acting correctly now, and I scored 100%.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 06, 2012:

Thanks for that Gail! I will look you up on pinterest now and follow you! And thanks very much for pinning my stuff.

I was also interested to read about your background in art because I also find your hubs beautifully presented.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 06, 2012:

B. Leekley, I am not sure why you are getting that on the quiz, because there are 2 separate questions on her influences - the first is, "Mary was influenced by painters from which country?" And then the next is, "Mary Cassatt was influenced by print-makers from which country?" So I'm not sure why you would be getting the answer to question 3 for question 2. But someone has just posted on a Facebook group I belong to that the quiz capsule is acting up, so perhaps it jumped a question. I'd be grateful if you would try it again to see if it works now.

Thanks very much for getting back to me and for sharing suggestions for other artists to write about.

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 05, 2012:

Melovy, in reply to your question about my comment of this morning, question 2 of 6 in your quiz asks, "Mary was influenced by painters from which countries? - Japan - France - United Kingdom". Because your article describes in detail the influence of French painters, especially the French Impressionists and especially Degas, on Mary's paintings, and because your article mentions Japanese prints, not Japanese paintings, I answered France. When I clicked Next, I got the message: "X Sorry, the correct answer was "Japan". My reading of the article is that France is not an incorrect answer to that question.

If you choose to revise the question and multiple choices, here's one idea: "Mary was influenced by the artists of which countries: - France and England; - France and Japan; - Japan and Niue."

If you do a hub series on women artists, I nominate Canadian painter Emily Carr, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and American photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on October 05, 2012:

I didn't realize you used to teach art, but it certainly explains why your hubs are always artistically presented, including your recipe hubs.

This particular hub reminded me of the art appreciation course I took in college as an elective.

I just recently joined Pinterest under my Happyboomernurse name and I'm not sure why I'm not showing up when a general search is made on the site. The URL to my board page with all the pins I've made so far is:

You will find several of your art pages on the Kid's Art and My Favorite Artist boards.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 05, 2012:

NMLady, lucky you seeing an exhibit of her work. I have lots of printed copies in the house, but have not seen many originals. It's great to see art in its original form. I will always remember seeing Monet's waterlilies in New York and his "Ladies in the Garden" in Paris. That painting is so huge!

Thanks very much for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the article.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 05, 2012:

Gail, I could have added a dozen more of those beautiful paintings, but I had to stop somewhere! I used to teach art and so this article was based on some pages I put together for school. She was an amazing woman in many ways, and way ahead of her time.

Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for your comment and for sharing.

(I looked for you on Pinterest, but couldn't find you.)

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 05, 2012:

Thanks Bill. She is one of my favourite painters. I love Impressionism in general.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on October 05, 2012:

B. Leekley, thanks very much for your comment and for sharing. I'm puzzled why you think the essay contradicts the quiz, though, since I have certainly meant to indicated in both that she was influenced by French painters and Japanese printers - which you have also correctly pointed out. In what way did you think this wasn't clear, so that I can make any alterations necessary?

NMLady from New Mexico & Arizona on October 05, 2012:

I love Mary Cassatt. I saw an exhibit of her work in Chicago about 10 years ago. I purchased some copies and have them in my home. I so enjoy them. Thank you for the article.

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on October 05, 2012:

What a fascinating introduction to the work of this amazing artist. I loved the way you wove the difficulties she faced- opposition from her family, prejudice against women in art schools and competitions, into the story which made her eventual achievements even more amazing.

I also liked the fact that you included so many examples of her work and gave us tips on what to look for while viewing them.

Voted up across the board except for funny. Also shared on HP and Pinterest.

Hub Hugs,


Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 05, 2012:

Wonderful paintings and a great job of profiling this very talented woman. Great job Yvonne; I loved the art!

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 05, 2012:

Your essay contradicts your quiz. She was influenced first and foremost by French painters, especially the Impressionists, and she was influenced by Japanese printmakers.

Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers, social networking sites, and my artist wife.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 29, 2012:

Marcy, I had never thought about what it would have been like if she hadn't managed to persuade her father! You are right it would have been a huge loss to art. I also love her art. Thanks for your comment.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

I have always loved this great woman's art. Just think of the loss to the art world if she had been held back from realizing her dream and developing her talent.

Excellent hub - thank you!!! Voted up and up!

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 12, 2012:

Hi RealHousewife, yeah I've taken up a ghub topic! (ipad acting up there?) I am sure you will have seen some of her paintings as they do get used a lot in illustrations. There is one of her prints in your Art Museum (I got curious so googled it!) Her paintings and pastels are what I love best. Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for your comment!

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 12, 2012:

Ishwaryaa, I agree with your assessment of Mary Cassatt, and I'm glad you found the hub informative. I'll be interested to see you latest hub too. And good for you getting full marks! Thanks for reading and for your comment.

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on September 11, 2012:

This is another fascinating ghub topic! I had heard of her before - I didn't know mich about her. I'm sure I've seen one of those paintings before....I do go to our Art Museum here frequently...wonder if it was something there? Now it's bugging me! I KNOW I've seen her work somewhere before...

Very very interesting...loved it!

Ishwaryaa Dhandapani from Chennai, India on September 11, 2012:

An informative hub on one of the greatest female artists ever! I learnt a lot from this engaging hub of yours. I am quite familiar with some paintings as when I was researching for my latest hub and looking for suitable pictures for my hub, I came upon these paintings. A wonderful hub! I scored full marks in this hub - I noticed the shape of the jug's handle and detected its resemblance. Well-done!

Thanks for SHARING. Useful, Awesome & Interesting. Voted up & socially shared

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 11, 2012:

Thanks Phil Plasma, glad you enjoyed the hub.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 11, 2012:


It seems quite a few people haven't heard of her, so I am glad to introduce one of my favourite painters! I agree with you that the fact she painted normal behaviour gives the paintings so much life. And they are beautiful too.

Thanks for your comment.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 11, 2012:

Nettlemere, it's hard to imagine what life must have been like for women in those days. When I was writing this it really reminded me how far we've come in a 150 years or so.

Thanks for reading on, and for your comment.

Phil Plasma from Montreal, Quebec on September 10, 2012:

Excellent hub about Cassatt; I had heard of her but knew little; now I know more.

Ruchira from United States on September 10, 2012:

Thanks for introducing me an artist, I had never heard of before.

There is so much life in her paintings maybe 'cause she has painted the normal behavior of humans.

beautiful and interesting hub with many votes!

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on September 10, 2012:

Great opening line which made me keep reading. The hub has educated me about an artist I'd not even heard of before.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 10, 2012:

Vanderleelie, thanks very much for your kind comment and I am glad you like the structure of the hub. My aim is to provide pointers for children. Thanks too for your vote up.

Vanderleelie on September 10, 2012:

An excellent hub about Mary Cassatt's life and art. I like the analysis that you have provided for the individual paintings, suggesting key elements to explore in each one. Her subject matter and style are appealing to children and adults alike. Voted up and interesting.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on September 09, 2012:

Carol, she's also one of my favourite artists. I love so many of her paintings it was hard to know which to include! I'm glad you enjoyed this and thanks for your comment and vote up.

carol stanley from Arizona on September 09, 2012:

She is one of my favorite artists and she is an American. These pictures are great and I think you did a great job on her life. Always fun to learn new facts without serious research..for the readers that is. Thanks and Voting UP.

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