Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh. She was born into favorable circumstances:
Cassatt grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education; she spent 5 years in Europe and visited many of the capitals, including London, Paris, and Berlin. While abroad she learned German and French and had her 1'st lessons in drawing and music. Her first exposure to French artists Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet was likely at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. Also exhibited at the exhibition were Degas and Pissarro, both of whom would be her future colleagues and mentors.
Even though her family objected to her becoming a professional artist, Cassatt began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the early age of fifteen. Part of her parents' concern may have been Cassatt’s exposure to feminist ideas and the bohemian behavior of some of the male students. Although about 20% of the students were female, most viewed art as a socially valuable skill; few of them were determined, as Cassatt was, to make art their career. She continued her studies during the years of the American Civil War. Among her fellow students was Thomas Eakins, later the controversial director of the Academy.
Impatient with the slow pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study the old masters on her own. She later said, “There was no teaching” at the Academy. Female students could not use live models (until somewhat later) and the principal training was primarily drawing from casts.
Cassatt decided to end her studies (at that time, no degree was granted). After overcoming her father’s objections she moved to Paris in 1866, with her mother and family friends acting as chaperones.[
Toward the end of 1866, she joined a painting class taught by Charles Chaplin, a noted genre artist. In 1868, Cassatt also studied with artist Thomas Couture, whose subjects were mostly romantic and urban. On trips to the countryside, the students drew from life, particularly the peasants going about their daily activities. In 1868 one of her paintings, A Mandoline Player, was accepted for the first time by the selection jury for the Paris Salon. This work is in the Romantic style of Corot and Couture, and is one of only two paintings from the first decade of her career that can be documented today. The French art scene was in a process of change, as radical artists such as Courbet and Manet tried to break away from accepted Academic tradition and the Impressionists were in their formative years. Cassatt’s friend Eliza Haldeman wrote home that artists “are leaving the Academy style and each seeking a new way, consequently just now everything is Chaos”.
Returning to the United States in the late summer of 1870—as the Franco-Prussian War was starting—Cassatt lived with her family in Altoona. Her father continued to resist her chosen vocation, and paid for her basic needs, but not her art supplies.
Within months of her return to Europe in the autumn of 1871, Cassatt’s prospects had brightened. Her painting Two Women Throwing Flowers During Carnival was well received in the Salon of 1872, and was purchased. She attracted much favorable notice in Parma and was supported and encouraged by the art community there: “All Parma is talking of Miss Cassatt and her picture, and everyone is anxious to know her”.
After completing her commission for the archbishop, Cassatt traveled to Madrid and Seville, where she painted a group of paintings of Spanish subjects, including Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla (1873, in the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
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