Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

“I took leave of conventional art. I began to live.” Mary Cassatt told her first biographer, Achille Segard, about her invitation in 1877 to join artists she regarded as “true masters.” Before she was accepted as one of America’s most famous im­pressionist artists, Cassatt first had to conquer Paris.

Born on May 22, 1844, in Allegheny City, now part of Pittsburgh, Mary Stevenson Cassatt was the fourth surviving child of Katherine Kelso Johnston and Robert Simpson Cassatt, a successful stockbroker, real estate speculator, and mayor of Allegheny City. Her family moved frequently – to Pittsburgh, an estate near Lancaster, and Philadelphia by 1849. The Cassatts moved to Paris in 1851 and to Germany in 1853 so their eldest son Alexander J. could study engineering. Alexander J. Cassatt (1839-1906), president of the influential Pennsylvania Railroad Company from 1899 to 1906, married Lois Buchanan, niece of President James Buchanan, and became an important patron of his sister’s work.

Cassatt’s brother Robert died in 1855 and the family returned to Pennsylvania, but stopped briefly in Paris for the Expo­sition Universelle, which included a large art exhibition. The family eventually set­tled in Chester County where Mary’s father took up farming. In 1861, Cassatt enrolled for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that provided a foundation – but not the originality – needed to be­come a great artist. Because the United States had not yet established a public col­lection of great art for students to study, Cassatt traveled to Paris to study the old masters. For a woman of Victorian era so­ciety, an independent art career was frowned upon, and no one objected more strongly than her father. Realizing their determined daughter would not pursue a “proper” life as a wife and mother, her parents in­sisted she study at an established art studio and live respectably with family friends.

Cassatt initially com­plied with their wishes and copied works of the old masters at the Musee du Louvre, but she could not resist the exciting indepen­dent art of Paris. She became fascinated with the works of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Edouard Manet (1832-1883), both Realist painters, but both rejected by the art establishment known as the Paris Salon.

In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War forced her to return to Pennsylvania. After a restless year and a half, Cassatt sailed to Parma, Italy, where she studied Mannerist painters, such as Parmigianino (1503-1540) and Correggio (1489-1534), who rejected the harmony and balance of Renaissance painters, favoring distorted, exaggerated figures to achieve emotion and ambiguity. Her stay in Parma in­cluded the study of engraving and printmaking with Carlo Raimondi. From Rome in 1872, using the name Mary Stevenson, she submitted her first paint­ing accepted by the Paris Salon for its prestigious annual exhibition. The follow­ing year, while studying art in Spain, she entered the competition and the Salon again accepted her piece.

After studying in Belgium and Haar­lem, Holland, Cassatt settled in 1874 in Paris where she met artist and sculptor Edgar Degas (1834-1917). They became close friends, greatly influencing each other’s work. After Cassatt’s elderly par­ents and chronically ill sister Lydia moved to her Paris apartment in 1877, the artist devoted more time to caregiving than painting. Cassatt’s mother, sister, and the children of her friends became fa­vorite subjects for many of her portraits. The theme of mothers and children per­vades much of Cassatt’s work. Her sister Lydfa died in 1882, her father in 1891, and her mother in 1895.

Cassatt’s work impressed notable artists of her time, including Pierre-Au­gust Renoir (1841-1919), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). These artists struggled to break free from the rigid academic jury system of the Paris Salon and established independent exhibitions in which Cassatt participated between 1874 and 1886. She considered the label “impressionist” as derogatory, preferring to simply be called “independent.”

By the late 1880s, many French artists turned to political and economic objec­tives. Rising nationalism led artists and engravers to form the Societe des peintres-graveurs francais, which limited membership to French-born artists. Cas­satt suddenly found herself an outsider, forced to find audiences through other means.

Important to the independent artists was the influential, but highly selective, art dealer Paul DuJand-Ruel (1831-1922) who championed the impressionists. Cas­satt at times grew infuriated with Durand-Ruel. His strong backing of Degas, Monet, and Renoir helped their ca­reers prosper, while his less enthusiastic acceptance of Cassatt, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Camille Pissaro (1830-1903), and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) caused their careers to languish. When Durand-Ruel reneged on his promise to open a New York exhibition of Cassatt’s work in 1891, she came close to breaking ties with him. He had earned little money in Paris from sales of Cassatt’s works and New York collectors showed little interest. Although famous in France, she wrote, “I am still very much disappointed that my compa­triots have so little liking for any of my work.” In the end, Durand-Ruel played a key role promoting Cassatt’s work in America. He correctly predicted that her work would help introduce impressionist art to her countrymen.

Cassatt’s visit in 1890 to an exhibition of Japanese prints inspired a series of her highly acclaimed Japanese-influenced prints, including her favorite, The Bath, with its familiar mother and child sub­jects. Her technique of producing clearly defined etched Lines and hand applied aquatint colors on three to seventeen sep­arate plates ensured that each color did not bleed.

During Cassatt’s visit to Philadelphia in 1898 – her first since 1871 – newspapers mentioned nothing of her fame in Paris, although the Durand-Ruel Gallery was enjoying a measure of success in New York. Reminded of America’s scarcity of great art collections, she devoted the next several years persuading American collec­tors to purchase impressionist and modern art certain to be bequeathed to museums. Her wealthy friend Loui­sine Havemeyer was particularly influential in the acquisition of impres­sionist art held by the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art. One of Cassatt’s closest friends, American financier James Stillman, whom she be­friended in Paris in 1906, purchased twenty-three of her works. After Stillman’s death in 1918, much of his collection was shared by several museums in the United States.

Cassatt had hoped a tour of Egypt in 1911 would inspire new ideas, but the trip proved fatal for her brother, Philadelphia financier J. Gardner who had grown ill during their travels. Cassatt’s own health deteriorated, and diabetes caused her eye­sight to begin failing in 1913. Several operations were unsuccessful and she spent her final years in total blindness. She continued to promote art and wel­comed art students to her Paris home eager to hear the master artist’s strongly worded opinions. Mary Cassatt died in Paris on June 14, 1926, and was laid to rest in the family vault at Mesnil­Theribus. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com.mission installed a state historical marker in 2004 at Al­legheny and Ridge Avenues, Pittsburgh, to commemorate her birthplace.