Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A tombstone stands thirty miles northwest of Paris, France. It is inscribed to the memory of a “Native of Pennsylvania of the United States of America.” Not only is the presence of the grave of a Pennsylvanian in France a somewhat uncommon occurrence, ‘except for soldiers who served there in past wars, but this Penn­sylvanian held many other distinctions as well. Beyond the fact that this individual had received the Legion of Honor from the government of France and was revered by a French village as the owner of the manor house, this expatriate was also by acclaim of authorities one of America’s most outstanding artists. The name on the head­stone is Mary Cassatt.

The family into which she was born in 1844 lived in Allegheny City outside of Pittsburgh in modestly well­-to-do circumstances. Drawn to his ancestral home, her father, Robert Cassatt, originally a French Huguenot name – Cousart, in Colonial America, took his wife and seven children for an extended visit to Paris and then to Germany. Upon returning to Pennsylvania the group settled in the Philadelphia area where one son, Alexander, by study, determination, and ability, became president of the Penn­sylvania Railroad. Mary decided to become an artist, inspired obviously by the paintings, especially French, observed by her on the European tour. Thus, she enrolled in the Pennsyl­vania Academy of Fine Arts to begin a career to which few of her sex had aspired or been accepted or had achieved fame pursuing.

There is the belief by many feminists that women could never achieve distinction in any career, particularly art, because females had perpetually been denied the op­portunity to dedicate themselves to the long years of uninterrupted study and experience necessary for success. Always, women had been denied the right of self-expression. Some others have argued that because men always held the positions of judges and critics, they could deny a woman’s creativity or brilliance even if she had achieved competence in her field. Many males agreed that women were and are incapable, but not because of a lack of opportunity. Women might write or paint as hobbies or diversions, not separated from their domestic life, but they, many anti-­feminists felt, could not have a full-time career in such callings.

Mary Cassatt not only had to overcome traditional views about the role of women and the prejudice of the male com­munity but also had to survive the competition in the art world and then establish an individual style and personality of her own to gain permanent recognition, true of the finest male talents. She not only accomplished all of this but did it in a unique way.

In 1866, Mary Cassatt left the Pennsylvania Academy behind, finding its teaching methods too confining. She went to the initial source of her inspiration, Paris, with the reluctant agreement of her father and to live with friends of the family. While beginning study with an established master, this determined American decided to strike out on her own. After a brief interruption during the Franco-Prussian War, her development continued by study of the “masters'” paintings – in Italy, in Spain, and in Holland. This led to acceptance of her work by the “Paris Salon,” an art exhibition to which all painters aspired for recognition.

These showings of her paintings might have been suffi­cient for some individuals but independent as always, she befriended and became involved with a new and unaccepted group of artists known as the Impressionists. One of its number, Degas, was so affected by her work that he came to influence her style and initiated a relationship that has been described as anywhere from intimate to a mutually concerned professional friendship. Beyond this association, Mary Cassatt had to assume the responsibility of her family who joined her in France. She also further modified and evolved her techniques in order to express herself in several different media, even to aquatints which showed a strong Japanese influence.

In the early twentieth century she developed cataracts and finally became fatally ill with diabetes. In thirty years of activity, her style did not change beyond the era of the Impressionists. Her independence also led her to eventually disdain contact with other American expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, who gathered in Paris in the 1920’s.
The subjects of her most noted paintings were in large numbers members of her family, relatives, and acquain­tances. This kind of model was inexpensive and most familiar and susceptible to her dictates. Of special impact on the viewer are the portraits of upper-class women, relatives, and other females performing such acts as drinking tea, or riding in a carriage, or bathing, or reading, dressing, or as mother and child – a subject she appreciated only by observation. A distinct femininity is imparted in sensitive colors and mottled impressions or fine line.

Beyond her own work, Mary Cassatt had a profound impact on American art. She acted as a guide to and publi­city agent for European art and artists, especially the Impressionists, tor her family and for wealthy art buying acquaintances such as the Chicago socialite, Mrs. Potter Palmer, and as the Havemeyers (Louisine Elder) of the “Sugar Trust.” Their collections are now to be seen in such museums as the Chicago Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Through her connection with Mrs. Palmer, Mary Cassatt was commissioned to create a mural for the Woman’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The three panels entitled “Modern Woman” showed females in bright modern dress, harvesting fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and Science, painting, dancing, playing music, and in pursuit of that most elusive of qualities about which Mary Cassatt must have been fami­liar, Fame. True to the individual independent ways of this distinctive woman, however, she refused to have students to whom she might pass on her style.

Certainly she had a head start on her quest for recognition with the financial support, social acceptance, and standing that her family could provide. Her fame is decidedly, though, the result of her determination, of talent, and of her sense of taste and style.

An incident which occurred on one of her visits to America, from which she was separated as an artist but to which she remained devoted as a daughter, demonstrates the obstacles she overcame. In 1899 after her worth was truly established in Paris, a Philadelphia newspaper com­menting on her visit, identified her as the sister of Mr. Cassatt, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. While noting her study of painting in France, the article con­cluded with the item that she had the smallest Pekinese dog in the world. It is strange that the writer did not also com­ment on the dramatic hats Mary habitually wore. It is a true tribute to her achievement that she was able to over­come such slighting consideration. Pennsylvania can be most proud of this native daughter, who rests, however, on foreign soil.


In Pennsylvania, paintings by Miss Cassatt may be viewed at: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and in private collections.



Breuning, Margaret. Mary Cassatt. New York: The Hyperion Press, 1944.

Carson, Julia M. H. Mary Cassatt. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966.

Fraysur, Frank Hall. “Mary Cassatt.” Published in Gertrude Biddle and Sarah Lowrie. Notable Women of Pennsylvania. Philadel­phia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942, pp. 225-226.

Lowe, David, “Mary Cassatt.” American Heritage, December, 1973, pp. 10-21, 96-110.

McKown, Robin. The World of Mary Cassatt. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.

Sweet, Frederick A. Miss Mary Cassatt, Impressionist from Penn­sylvania. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

____. “Mary Cassatt.” Published by Edward T. James, editor. Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, vol. 1, pp. 303-305.


Dr. John Furlow has done extensive research and teaching in the field of women in Pennsylvania history.