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American Mary Cassatt was one of the leading artists in the Impressionist movement of the later part of the 1800s.
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She continued to study and paint in Spain, Belgium and Rome, eventually settling permanently in Paris.
Though she felt indebted to the Salon for building her career, Mary Cassatt began to feel increasingly constrained by its inflexible guidelines. No longer concerned with what was fashionable or commercial, she began to experiment artistically. Her new work drew criticism for its bright colors and unflattering accuracy of its subjects. During this time, she drew courage from painter Edgar Degas, whose pastels inspired her to press on in her own direction. "I used to go and flatten my nose against that window and absorb all I could of his art," she once wrote to a friend. "It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."
Her admiration for Degas would soon blossom into a strong friendship, and Mary Cassatt exhibited 11 of her paintings with the Impressionists in 1879. The show was a huge success both commercially and critically, and similar exhibits were staged in 1880 and 1881. Shortly thereafter marked a dormant period for Mary Cassatt, who was forced to withdraw from the art world to care for her ill mother and sister. Her sister died in 1882, but after her mother regained her health, Mary was able to resume painting.
While many of her fellow Impressionists were focused on landscapes and street scenes, Mary Cassatt became famous for her portraits. She was especially drawn to women in everyday domestic settings, especially mothers with their children. But unlike the Madonnas and cherubs of the Renaissance, Cassatt's portraits were unconventional in their direct and honest nature. Commenting in American Artist, Gemma Newman noted that "her constant objective was to achieve force, not sweetness; truth, not sentimentality or romance."
Mary Cassatt's painting style continued to evolve away from Impressionism in favor of a simpler, more straightforward approach. Her final exhibition with the Impressionists was in 1886, and she subsequently stopped identifying herself with a particular movement or school. Her experimentation with a variety of techniques often led her to unexpected places. For example, drawing inspiration from Japanese master printmakers, she exhibited a series of colored prints, including Woman Bathing and The Coiffure, in 1891.
Soon after, Mary Cassatt began taking an interest in young, American artists. She also sponsored fellow Impressionists and encouraged wealthy Americans to support the fledgling movement by purchasing artwork. She became an advisor to several major collectors, with the stipulation that their purchases would eventually be passed on to American art museums.
A 1910 trip to Egypt with her brother, Gardner, and his family would prove to be a turning a point in Mary Cassatt's life. The magnificent ancient art made her question her own talent as an artist. Soon after their return home, Gardner died unexpectedly from an illness he contracted during the journey.
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Derived from Claude Monet's piece entitled Impression, the term "impressionism" was created to describe the work of a select group of Parisian painters in the late 19th century. With their thin brush strokes and explosion of color and lighting on mundane subjects, impressionists painters like Monet, Mary Cassatt, and Alfred Sisley confounded critics, defied conventions, and sparked scandal. A century and a half later, they are among the most revered and influentional artists of all time.
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